The Kingdom of Heaven is Still a Mustard Seed

Jesus goes way out of his way to prepare his disciples for disappointment in living in God’s kingdom or working in His Church. Whether he is comparing heaven’s kingdom to a mustard seed or a farmer frustrated with weeds in his garden, Jesus makes one thing clear. God doesn’t rule like the disciples would expect. His mighty army of followers would look more like a bunch of misfits and weaklings.  

It’s hard to skip over Jesus’ constant humbling of expectations. I have taught my congregation many times the importance of seeing things through Christ’s eyes and not ours.  Yet still when challenges occur, when church leaders fall down, when western civilization finally sucks all it can from Christian virtues and turns around to eat it, I’m in shock.  Pastors who should know better feign surprise.  Books are written about what’s wrong with the Church. Cottage industry consultants make parasitic income offering basic advise. Christians whine about persecution and martyrdom as opposed to applauding and desiring it like heroes of old.

I wonder if we think Jesus description of God’s reign as a mustard seed was only meant for people back then.  We think we have evolved.  We have built mansions with crosses. We have founded universities with statues of Jesus. We have named cities after saints. We fooled ourselves into believing the mustard seed had sprouted. 

It hasn’t. The Kingdom of heaven is still like a mustard seed. Weeds are still in the garden. Christ’s Church never did take over the culture or society. Sinners are still needing forgiveness. Saints are still falling down. Resurrected souls are still struggling with dying bodies. And the world still tramples God’s children.  

Don’t let the buildings fool you, the AV or Pipe Organ sway you, the arenas or expensive stoles confuse you.  Jesus still moves in small ways among small people, even tiny infants. He collects beggars and divorcees.  He hangs out with drug addicts and gangsters. He even pours grace and gives promises of remission of sins and sickness to plain old middle class boring repeat offenders like me.

While the world thinks it’s defeated the big ole Church like it did Jesus, the body of Christ slips under its radar quietly serving her enemies and rescuing the wounded.  When Christ arose no one thought to look for him in a grave yard. Yet that’s where He does his best work – where people feel guilty and people are dead.

God’s reign might look like a mustard seed but it packs a punch like a hurricane or the hug of a long lost son.  Jesus is just as effective now through his motley crue as he ever was. Don’t worry about that.

And soon, very soon, you might see that mustard seed turn into the largest bush in the garden. On the last day, when He is revealed, and His garden is revealed, and you are revealed as the person He says you are – righteous and resurrected.  Don’t worry. You’ll get your mustard tree. Come Lord Jesus

The City is the Future

The Jagged Word

By Joel A. Hess

ciuitatem Dei siue in hoc temporum cursu
– Augustine, City of God

I love Chicago, but
it’s not for everyone. Masses of people are walking, driving, running, yelling,
pushing, and crying 24/7. It’s busy and cramped. A large city is humanity on
steroids or under a microscope. Everything good and bad stuffed into a small
box, so that’s all we see.

So needless to say, when
a lot of people think of eternity, they don’t really like to imagine living
forever in a city. Certainly my friends from northern Michigan would agree. A
city is smelly, congested, and loud. We all sort of default to an imagination
of heaven as being wide open spaces. For some reason, when someone dies, we
often like to say, “He’s probably out fishing.”

By the way, if you
want your kids to reject God, tell them that in…

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Happy Father’s Day! It’s ok to be a Joseph



Happy Father’s Day! It’s ok to be a Joseph

You don’t hear much about Joseph. He just disappears after the birth of our Lord. Reappears for a moment when Jesus scares his parents by staying in His real Father’s house, then gone again. We call him Saint Joseph, but what did he really do?

My friend, Pastor Dave Rufner, nailed it after listening to our latest Ringside podcast. He wrote me saying,

“He had no speaking parts. Hugely faithful, but no recorded words. Thats good news for a whole slew of guys who think that uber Christians have to talk as much as pastor and they never will.”

Amen to that.

Of course who knows if Joseph was a jabber mouth and the gospel writers just didn’t include it. But I’m going to go with Pastor Rufner’s assessment. Joseph just got’r done. He led by deeds. He took on his wife even though the townfolk probably thought he was nuts. She was not only pregnant, she was telling everyone it was God’s child! He obeyed the government and brought Mary to Bethlehem as ordered by Caesar. He provided a safe place for them during their stay even if he could not afford a first class hotel. He protected mom and child when they needed to escape to Egypt. Finally, he later taught his boy the honest trade of a carpenter.

Of course Joseph does not play the hero in this story: God alone does. But still, like Mary, Joseph provides a great role model for dads and husbands. Get’r done. They don’t need be mr. raise your hands up in church swerving your body back and forth to the music. They don’t need to be mr. long prayer guy, super emotional, hugging everyone and answering all the questions in bible class. Men, you don’t need to be in front of the church. Feel free to just hangout in the background, fixing the sink in the bathroom, making the manger for the christmas play, bringing your family to church services and making sure your daughters memorize their catechism and learn to fear the Lord.

Some are called to be the loud martyr, the extraordinary martyr, the going down in flames witness, shouting Jesus before the gunshots. Some are called to be the quiet more long term martyrs; witnessing to Christ with deeds, quietly trusting in God’s redemption in Jesus, and serving in quiet ordinary ways in the background. We need more Josephs in our families and our churches. We need more men.

Of course the greatest event in Joseph’s life occurred as he was considering what he would do with Mary. When he discovered that she was pregnant, he had every right to go nuclear on Facebook, cover her name with shame, and even have her tried by a jury! Yet instead Matthew tells us, “her husband Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly.” May we all show such mercy to those who hurt us. Yet the irony consumes us. While Joseph desired to not put Mary to shame, he soon found out that the babe she carried would take all of our shame, even Joseph’s, upon himself on the cross! As the angel says, “He will be called Jesus because he will save his people from their sins!” And that He did! Thank you Jesus.

Christmas is for the naughty list!


We all know how Santa thinks. He’s making a list. He’s checking it twice. He’s gonna find out whose naughty or nice. Santa Claus is coming to town. Of course this encourages us to be on the nice list and get our reward. This is a good technique for creating civil righteousness, that is outward behavior that benefits society. Nothing wrong with that. If getting a present for christmas keeps you from disrupting society than great! Santa basically acts as our parent or government. We get Santa punishment and reward all year round! What’s so special about December?

But Christmas is actually not for those on the nice list. Unlike Santa, who apparently sees you while you’re sleeping, God truly knows your heart and your mind. Therefore no matter how good you might look on the outside to Santa, God knows you belong on the naughty list. It’s coal in your stocking!

But wait, the angels say something different that first Christmas. They came to shepherds keeping their fields at night. I’m not sure we can confirm these guys are on the nice list. Likely, they were not. Usually shepherds would be rough handed dudes who you might find at the bar after work. Doesn’t mean they were bad per se. But they weren’t the blessed Virgin Mary ok. Yet the Angels say, “For unto YOU is born a Savior.” Whether you are on the naughty list or not.

Well actually Jesus birth is especially for those on the naughty list as He tells a group of Santas who questioned why He ate with sinners. “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick.  I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.” Of course its clear we are all sinners (on the naughty list.)

So Merry Christmas sinner! Jesus was born for YOU. He died and rose for YOU! And He gives presents to you, presents only a naughty person and dying person can appreciate! Forgiveness and eternal life.

Good Friday: Welcome to your funeral


Welcome. On behalf of the family of the deceased I would like to thank you for being here.

You have come to a funeral of sorts haven’t you? Well, that’s what they say I suppose.

Have you ever wondered what it would be like to go to your own funeral?

Zhang Deyang was 66 years old when he decided to stage his own funeral. He arranged it himself, wondering how many would turn up given that he had never married and had no children. There was a particular reason for his concern—in Chinese culture, the dead are said to have needs, and their graves are supposed to be visited regularly to ensure those needs are met.
In the event, 40 invitees turned up at Deyang’s funeral, along with several hundred others. Yet he wasn’t happy: 20 relatives and friends didn’t show up. “I can’t believe so many relatives and friends don’t care about me,” he was quoted as saying.

Would anyone come to your funeral? What would they say?

I’m sure some teary eyed relative might say something good about most of you right? Have you ever been to a funeral where people didn’t say anything nice? Everyone cries at a funeral, so what? They are supposed to.

So don’t get a big head. Lets be honest. If everyone was honest at your funeral would you be declared a saint.?

We don’t do eulogies in our funeral services at Emmanuel because we don’t let BS in the church. Telling great stories about so and so are fine at home with a couple of beers! I encourage it!

But not here.

If people really knew all you have said and done. what would they really say?

If they knew all your thoughts, words, secret desires that fly through your head throughout the day.

If they knew that you were pretty stingy with your money. Just the other day you walked by that kid being bullied in the hallway. You pretended not to see.

If they knew that you still judged that jerk who hurt you 5 years ago and you now wished he was dead.

If they knew how you talk to your wife at home when no one is watching, or what you do on your computer when no one is watching.

What if God were to speak at your funeral service.

They say that everyone should be able to die with dignity. There is a whole movement called ‘death with dignity.’ Of course they ironically promote suicide. But still we like that don’t we? Death with dignity.

Brothers and sisters in Christ! No one dies with dignity. We die precisely because we have no dignity! Death is punishment for sin. If you die. That is proof you are a sinner!

Well I made a mistake. No one has ever died with dignity except for one! Jesus.

This is his funeral service isn’t it?

Yet what kind of death did Jesus get? It certainly wasn’t dignified!

At jesus’ funeral service they mocked him. They dressed him up as a King and spit on him. They whipped him 40 times. They stole his clothes. They nailed him on a tree gleefully.

At Jesus’ funeral there was no eulogy praising him. Peter denied even knowing him! Judas betrayed him! Others yelled out, “He saved others, let him save himself if he really is the Son of God!”

At Jesus’ funeral they threw him on a cross. They treated him like a sinner! A thief. An enemy of the state!

When He was dead, they stabbed him in the side to make sure! They happily dragged his body off the cross and threw him in a grave.

Jesus, the sinless one. Jesus is the only one to have ever have any dignity! He’s the only one who deserves to have a funeral service with dignity.

So you have come to a funeral service this Good Friday huh?

This is not a funeral service for Jesus.

This is a funeral service for you!

That’s what good Friday is all about! When Jesus died, He took you with him!!!

All of your sins. All of your foolishness. All of your shame. Everything that was done to him, should have been done to you! But it wasn’t!

He received it all in your place!

All your lack of dignity was laid upon Him.

So from now on you do die with dignity! not your dignity – but Christ’s!

Paul tells us that all of us who were baptized into Jesus were baptized into His death! we were buried with him – Paul says!

This is your funeral service!

So you don’t need to be afraid of your funeral service when it comes!
Doesn’t matter what people say!
Doesn’t matter what Satan accuses you of!

You already died in Christ! and all your sins with with you!

in Jesus name


i’m so sorry

The blackness spreads
oh, I don’t really mean that
(oh I really mean it. I want it. I hate it.)
If I could take
a big bite out of everything!
and let the juice drip down my chin
but i know the next scene.
scorched earth and tears.

breaking waves of grace
smoothing stones of stubbornness
over and over
please don’t stop.

He thought he loved the girl.
He really did.
She sure did.
But it got lost on the way from asking her to marry him
to holding her hand 10 years in while she struggles with leukemia
and that damned mother in law.
broken bodies, broken promises, broken hearts

breaking waves of grace
smoothing stones of stubbornness
over and over
please don’t stop

death seems a million miles away until it feels like its everywhere
they left him alone accidentally
staring at white walls, tubes and wires and
something was on t.v. he forgot
beeps and the clicking of shoes rushing to and fro
blood and urine and the man dressed in black
i’m sorry. I don’t even know what for

breaking waves of grace
smoothing stones of stubbornness
over and over
please don’t stop

hold on
im falling hard
and your hands are bleeding
and i’m so sorry

Extreme Ownership


Recently I have been inspired by a book recommended to me by my blood brothers in Christ, Paul Koch and Ross Engel: Extreme Ownership by Jacko Willink and Leif Babin. Some of you have probably already read Ross’ fantastic post about discipline inspired by the same authors.

Extreme Ownership is about exactly that – ownership! As a leader, do you own what you are in charge of or not! Do you take full responsibility or are you quick to blame others? Do you see you own everyone’s ability to do their job well on your team or do you let them sink or swim alone? In the first chapter Jocko recounts a moment in his life when he realized the virtue of owning everything extremely as a leader. I apologize for summarizing his well told tale. Basically he was the leading officer in a firefight that resulted in ‘blue on blue’ injuries and a casualty. While the incident was under investigation, Jocko combed over every detail to find blame for the severe mishap.

He writes, “despite all the failures of individuals, units and leaders, and despite the myriad mistakes that had been made, there was really only one person to blame for everything that had gone wrong on the operation: me….I had to take complete ownership of what went wrong. That is what a leader does-even if it means getting fired.” He goes on to give examples such as “if an individual on the team is not performing at the level required for the team to succeed, the leader must train and mentor that underperformer.”

So true yet hard to do! As leaders, whether a pastor, a father, a manager or captain of a ship, we are responsible for failure no matter what. If subordinates fail at their job, the leader should do a better job training, etc. We see great leaders do this time and time again. Even in sports, great leaders on a team make everyone better, they don’t blame others, they don’t play for themselves and their own glory.

This can be applied to our lives before God as well. So often we blame circumstance, bad luck, environment, etc. for problems in our life instead of accusing ourselves. We especially are tempted to blame anyone and anything but ourselves for sin! We hate taking ownership of our failures to love our neighbor and love God. Our parents did exactly that when God came to find out who was at fault for humanity’s first friendly fire! He first spoke with the senior leader on the ground, Adam. Adam failed to take ownership and threw his wife under the bus. “Eve, the woman you gave me. She gave me the fruit.” For shame!

Dear reader, take ownership of your life! Husbands and dads especially, you truly are responsible for the health of your family. Don’t blame your wife and kids when things go wrong or the marriage falls on hard times. Look in the mirror. Sometimes I yell at my kids for not knowing something and then I remember, that’s why they have me! I’m supposed to teach it!

More importantly, my friends, whether you are a leader or not own up to your failures. Stop blaming everyone but yourself. Name it. Claim it! Own it! Repent!

We blame others because we are scared of the reality that we suck! We blame others because we are afraid of consequences. We so desperately want to preserve our righteousness, we will blame everything and everyone but ourselves.


Yet let me tell you something Jocko didn’t say. There is one who practices extreme ownership more extremely than a Navy SEAL: God. Though God could very well have blamed us, deserted us, and left us for dead, He extremely owned us! Jesus even owned our sins, took them upon His holy body and suffered for every one! Our failure to be a good leader – Jesus owns on the cross. Our failure to be good husbands and fathers – Jesus owns on the cross. Our failure to own up to our faults and our talent for throwing everyone else under the buss – Jesus owns on the cross! He owned our guilt and shame and received our lashes and death! Talk about extreme ownership! Jesus wrote the book on it! literally

So don’t be afraid to own up to your crap. You don’t have to make excuses to preserve your good name or hold on to your invented righteousness! Jesus gives you His righteousness! He has claimed you as HIs own!

As you follow Willink’s advise to take extreme ownership, don’t be afraid! You will fall down. You may even fail! But God has you. He has bought you by the blood of His son Jesus. He owns you. Yet He is the most wonderful owner.

Don’t shun the Darkness. Shine


Social media makes us mad. People say crazy things. Every time we open our Facebook, we frown at ignorant posts regarding this or that sin. Well maybe not ‘we’, how about ‘me.’ I am so tempted to curse it all, to lash out in anger, to throw a heaping bowl of truth on their party! I want to curse the darkness, shut the door and go back to my cozy chair by the fire. I don’t want to shed light on them. I want to blind them. I want to be right and make sure they know they are wrong! darkness.

Jesus says, “YOU are the light of the world, a city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and ogive glory to your Father who is in heaven.”

Jesus says, YOU are the light of the world! No Jesus, You are the light of the world! True. He is the light of the world! Yet still He says to His disciples, “YOU are the light.” Jesus dwells, loves, forgives, gives life and gives light through people. Sure Jesus immediately shined upon Saul and made him Paul. But for the rest of us, He shined upon us through His people, His church. And not just the best of us, but even the worst of us!

You are the light of the world? That seems like the dumbest idea ever. The Son of God can surely do a better job by visiting everyone Himself, like He did Paul. Well our Lord begs to differ! He rose from the dead. He probably knows what He is doing.

Christians, believe it! You are the light of the world. This is not a plan B. It’s the plan! You can trust His plan. I can trust what He says about me! If He says I am the light then I am! The one who was raised from the dead first, raised me in baptism, called me forgiven, alive, a child of God! So I am. So I am a light whether I like it or not! But Jesus says – why not like it! Do it. Why hide it!

Instead of cursing the darkness and meeting sinful actions with shock, dismay and a frown; shine on it! Just as Christ did not come into the world to condemn the world, neither is He sending you to do it.

Why would people know any better? Why would we expect them to act any brighter? They are in the dark. Just like you once were. They need the light – cue YOU! Jesus tells us to light up the whole house! Salt the whole damned earth! He isn’t talking about lighting your little room full of your personally selected party guests. He is talking about the dark closets, creepy attics and basements full of perverts and psychopaths. He is referring to those who are acting like damn fools, just like you once did! They need YOU! They need your words of truth spoken with care and with the goal of giving grace! They need your acts of charity, embrace and generosity no matter what they say about you, to you or behind your back. They are supposed to act like that. Love them. Forgive them. Don’t give up on them. Shine on them. Shine on them whether they want it or not.

Trust Jesus’ words!  Expect people to get lit!

The Prize of Individualism: Loneliness


The general philosophy of our culture has drifted, well more like a free jumped, into an individualism that not even Nietzsche could have predicted. Though the guilty parties may not just be the usual suspects of those sinister existentialist Europeans. Surely John Stuart Mill and other mainstream red blooded Americans pushed the glories of individualism. Afterall, what hardcore church going conservative doesn’t love to brag about the ‘rugged individualism’ upon which this country was founded!?

There were many wonderful blessings to humanity that were afforded by this elevation of the individual over community. Yet our journey toward extreme individualism is beginning to crack the walls of reasonable thought and will have dire consequences for its adherents. We have now reached a point where many believe so strongly in individualism that nothing else matters. Despite living in the self proclaimed age of science, the disbelief in a concrete and universal reality outside of oneself has propelled many Westerners to trust only in themselves when it comes to determining reality or ideas like right or wrong. Fortunately this has not been applied to 4 way stops. not yet.

While many individualists tout our progression and call it liberating, the belief in an individual’s ability to determine her own reality is quite old. Gorgias of Leontini (4-5th cen. b.c.) first established the progressive philosophy – 1. nothing exists, 2. even if something exists, nothing can be known about it, if it something can be known about it, nothing can be communicated about it. Does that sound like plenty of people you meet on the street? There is after all nothing new under the sun.

This philosophy has been called ‘solipsism’, based on the latin word ‘solus’ meaning ‘alone.’ And alone is what a disciple of solipsism will feel! As we have attempted to ‘free’ mankind from the oppression of objective truth and societal norms, we have simultaneously imprisoned him in a cell fit for only one . “you don’t know me” concludes all arguments.

While people are certainly being freed from external pressures and definitions are they not also growing more alone? Might the grave increase of suicide in our country be attributed to this feeling. No one understands. No one knows me. No one can really be my friend. The journey of existentialism pop culture has enjoyed only ends in out right nihilism as those first pioneers discovered. nothingness. so have fun with that.
The Bible may not be an existentialist manifesto but it certainly gets it the idea. The preacher who preached Ecclesiastes was way ahead of the game. The New Testament depicts man as lost and living in darkness, unable to conclude even basic empirical realities because of his inward bend.

Jesus came for lonely people. He came for those who know what the consequence of selfish actions feel like. He gave water to the woman alone at the well. He fed the Canaanite mother alone and desperate. He even chose the Tax collector, matthew, whom everyone in town avoided, to be his disciple. No one came to Jesus. He went to them, walked through their little prison, and brought them to Himself and into a community!

How ironic that He who brought lonely people together found himself alone on the cross even crying out the ultimate existentialist mantra: My God why have you forsaken me! Yet He did it happily with all His life for you and me and all of us who are born desiring to look inward and be alone. In Jesus we are not only brought back to the Father, but to the family of former lonely people.  We don’t have to be alone!

How sad that some christians reject community and convince themselves its just as fine to commune with God in the woods, the old man fighting to be alone. Meanwhile our Lord throws a party for the lost Son, who was once dead but is now alive! Come and enjoy the fatted calf, the fellowship of believers, the end of loneliness!

Christmas: an unplanned pregnancy, an unwanted King


This December people across the world are setting up idyllic manger scenes on pianos and below Christmas trees. Marys and Josephs bend down toward the perfect looking child while well groomed animals, shepherds and angels peer upon the holy family. Every Creche upon this globe promotes a serenity and peacefulness that rises above the chaos of our world. Everyone loves Christmas right?

Yet the actual events were not so smooth. Don’t kid yourself! The world did not want this baby. Joseph did not originally want this baby. Mary had not planned on this baby. Herod was shocked to hear that this baby was born! All of Jerusalem pulled their hair and tore their shirts when they heard such a baby might be among them. Jesus was for certain quite an interruption!

While the exaggerated story of Hotel managers turning away Jesus is untrue, nevertheless Jesus birth caused discomfort for all as Mary was forced to give birth in a crowded home and placed him in a manger because there was no more space. And I am certain the other guests were not too happy with a crying child keeping them up at night.

So let us not celebrate the birth of Christ as if we expected him all along. Do not place Him comfortably in your life, as if He has a normal space like all the other things you collect, like all the other decorations for the seasons.  When Christmas concludes, we will discard him in the bin next to the gourds for Thanksgiving, the fireworks for 4th of July and so on. But He doesn’t want a space in your house. He comes to take over your life!

A couple of years ago my wife and I were surprised by our third son. We had given up on having more kids for some time. We had our plans laid out. We were finally going to get ahead paying off some debt. She was going to go to school and so was I. We were quite settled. So when my wife announced her pregnancy it turned our whole world upside down. Suddenly our whole life revolved around one little life!

How much more with Jesus. We want Christmas to be a nice little break from our day to day, only to go back to our day to day in January. Then we can put our little Jesus away with all the angels, stars, marys and Josephs. We want to stare at the little manger scene and imagine. We don’t want to hear what the Christ child has to say. We don’t want to follow him from the cradle to the cross, to the grave, to the right hand of God, to our miserable lives.


Yet Jesus did not come to fit comfortably in our narrative. He came to flip it around! He came to disrupt! He came to place you in His story! And that can actually be a little uncomfortable to say the least.

Herod wanted Jesus dead because there can only be one king. So the pharisees and chief priests would later agree and do the evil deed. They killed Him because He made them feel bad about themselves. Don’t be so smug. You want Him dead sometimes too. You would have Mary abort. You might not be king of much, but it’s something. At best we want to share the Kingship. We will repent of stuff that is easy to repent of. Other things we will hold out till its forced from us. Jesus, you stay over there in the manger, in a cage. Let me reign.


What a mess we have made

No one asked for Him. But He came. No one asked Him. But He died for our sins.  No one came to greet His resurrection. Yet He rose.  And don’t fool yourself.  You didn’t ask Him to be your savior.  Yet He CAME!  Quite unplanned, unexpected and unwanted.  Yet He came gently through water and blood in love and mercy.  And though we fight it, He continues to advent with us, slowly loving us to death and loving us to life.

While we did not plan Him, want Him, expect Him.  He planned for YOU.  He wanted YOU.

Come Lord Jesus. Merry Christmas