Ezekiel 36:24-28 – I Will Give You A New Heart

New Heart by Ginnie Johansen Johnson

I will take you from the nations, I will gather you from all the countries, and I will bring you to your own fertile land. I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be cleansed of all your pollution. I will cleanse you of all your idols. I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you. I will remove your stony heart from your body and replace it with a living one, and I will give you my spirit so that you may walk according to my regulations and carefully observe my case laws. Then you will live in the land that I gave to your ancestors, you will be my people, and I will be your God. (CEB)

Every time I read these Old Testament verses from the prophet Ezekiel I am reminded of my time as chaplain on two cardiac intensive care units. I had several occasions to follow patients through the process of a heart transplant. I sat with them as they wondered if they would ever get a new one, as their own heart could no longer sustain the rest of their life. Would they die before receiving one? What would happen to their families?

Then, finally the day came for many (unfortunately, not all) there is a heart for them. After the incredible transplant surgery, joy abounds, knowing there is a new lease on life, a fresh experience. Through weeks or months of waiting and flirting with the Grim Reaper of death, hope is realized. Their old useless heart now replaced with a vibrant one, full of life!

However, the process is not yet over. Typically, about two or three days into possessing this new heart, a new realization comes along with it: Someone else had to die so that I could live….

He personally carried our sins
    in his body on the cross
so that we can be dead to sin
    and live for what is right.
By his wounds
    you are healed. (1 Peter 2:24, NLT)

Life comes from death. Resurrection can only happen when there is a crucifixion. Gaining a new spiritual heart has been achieved at the greatest of costs. “I will” is uttered nine times by God in five verses of Ezekiel’s prophecy. In gracious acts of determination to restore fallen people, God makes promises and has the authority and power to back them up. Our new heart is waiting to be animated by God’s Spirit so that our observance of God’s law is infused with divine might. Our consent to surgery is all that is needed.

Consider just a few of the great “I will” statements of Holy Scripture:

“I will instruct you and teach you in the way you should go; I will counsel you with my loving eye on you.” (Psalm 32:8, NIV)

“If someone trusts me, I will save them.
    I will protect my followers who call to me for help.
When my followers call to me, I will answer them.
    I will be with them when they are in trouble.
    I will rescue them and honor them.
I will give my followers a long life
    and show them my power to save.” (Psalm 91:14-16, ERV)

“I will strengthen you; I will help you; I will uphold you with my victorious right hand.” (Isaiah 41:10, NRSV)

“Call to me and I will answer you and tell you great and unsearchable things you do not know.” (Jeremiah 33:3, NIV)

“I will never leave you nor forsake you.” (Hebrews 13:5, NKJV)

May Christ make his home in your heart as you trust in him.

May your spiritual roots grow down deep into God’s love and keep you strong.

May you have the power to grasp, along with all God’s people, how wide, how long, how high, and how deep is the love of God.

May you experience the love of Christ, though it is too great to understand fully.

May you be made complete with all the fullness of life and power that comes from God.

May your new heart pump with the grace of Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the encouragement of the Spirit. Amen.

Psalm 85:1-2, 8-13 – Giving the Good

Psalm 85 by American artist John August Swanson

Lord, you were favorable to your land;
    you restored the fortunes of Jacob.
You forgave the iniquity of your people;
    you pardoned all their sin….

Let me hear what God the Lord will speak,
    for he will speak peace to his people,
    to his faithful, to those who turn to him in their hearts.
Surely his salvation is at hand for those who fear him,
    that his glory may dwell in our land.

Steadfast love and faithfulness will meet;
    righteousness and peace will kiss each other.
Faithfulness will spring up from the ground,
    and righteousness will look down from the sky.
The Lord will give what is good,
    and our land will yield its increase.
Righteousness will go before him,
    and will make a path for his steps. (NRSV)

Steadfast love, faithfulness, righteousness, and peace are terms which all spiritual folks need to be familiar with as well as experience. Steadfast love and faithfulness have its ground in God’s chesed, the divine covenant loyalty and kindness which always holds on, even despite people’s fickle commitment. Righteousness and peace are primarily relational terms which communicate a harmonious way of being with others and all creation.

This psalm says God will give exactly what the people have prayed for. It is a blessing given by the Lord to those who long for wholeness, integrity, and unhindered connection with God and God’s creation. And it is in the metaphors surrounding the words which give us such a beautiful picture of the blessing realized.

This is neither a general nor generic blessing from God Almighty. It is personal. In the grand immensity of the universe, the Creator God bends and condescends not only to all humanity but also to the individual. God’s steadfast love and faithfulness will meet to bless you and me. The Lord will come alongside and conform a divine blessing to our life. God’s grace will stick to us like glue in the form of right relationships and unity.

All of God’s attributes and character shall work in a seamless whole to bring divine acceptance and assistance to our lives. The good news here is that our struggles to be right and live right amidst terrible conditions of pandemics and people’s petulance have a vindication of divine sanction and enablement.

So, take a big breath and exhale, allowing the worries and anxieties of adverse situations to be expelled from our weary spirits. The Lord will give what is good. Today’s psalm is a wonderful reminder that salvation is not limited to a coming life; it is also deliverance in this present world we inhabit, basking in the Lord’s love and shalom and enjoying the good gifts God wants to give us right now.

Gracious God speak peace to your people. Through your Son, the Lord Jesus, we turn to you in our hearts, knowing your steadfast love and faithfulness, your righteousness and peace goes before us, with us, and behind us. In Christ, our salvation is at hand. May we reflect your goodness, as we respond to you with heart, soul, mind, and strength. This we pray in the name of the One who is your peace, your salvation—Jesus Christ. Amen.

Hosea 6:1-6 – “I Desire Mercy!”

By Brazilian street artist Edward Kobra, building in New York City, 2018

Come, let us return to the Lord.
He has torn us to pieces
    but he will heal us;
he has injured us
    but he will bind up our wounds.
After two days he will revive us;
    on the third day he will restore us,
    that we may live in his presence.
Let us acknowledge the Lord;
    let us press on to acknowledge him.
As surely as the sun rises,
    he will appear;
he will come to us like the winter rains,
    like the spring rains that water the earth.

“What can I do with you, Ephraim?
    What can I do with you, Judah?
Your love is like the morning mist,
    like the early dew that disappears.
Therefore I cut you in pieces with my prophets,
    I killed you with the words of my mouth—
    then my judgments go forth like the sun.
For I desire mercy, not sacrifice,
    and acknowledgment of God rather than burnt offerings.” (NIV)

My favorite word in all Holy Scripture is the Hebrew word chesed.  It is such a rich word that no one English word can capture its depth.  So, chesed is translated in various ways across English translations of the Bible as mercy, grace, steadfast love, covenant loyalty, kindness, compassion and more. It is no wonder, then, that since chesed marks the character and activity of God, the Lord very much desires people to reflect this same stance toward others. 

In today’s Old Testament lesson, God was calling and wooing wayward people to return to a divine life of closeness with the Lord. God demonstrated chesed by not putting the people away, like a spouse outright divorcing an unfaithful partner, but committed to loving the Israelites even when they were unlovely.

At all times, the response God wants is not simply going through the motions of outward worship. Ritual practices mean little if there is no heart behind them. The Lord longs for people to demonstrate both fidelity and fealty through mercy and a steadfast love to God and neighbor. Both our work and our worship are to be infused with divine mercy. 

Chesed by Havi Mandell

God deeply desires a close relationship with humanity and is profoundly pained when people whore after other gods to meet their needs and love them. Hosea’s prophecy is an impassioned plea for all persons to find their true fulfillment and enjoyment in a committed loving divine/human union, like a marriage.

In Christian readings of Hosea’s prophecy, repentance means accepting God’s chesed through Jesus Christ. The believer is to allow the character of God to rule and reign in their heart so that love and commitment come flowing out in words, actions, thoughts, and dispositions. Mercy finds its highest expression in the person and work of Jesus. Thus, Advent is a season of anticipating the great love and mercy of God through the incarnation of Christ.

It is no wonder, then, that Jesus lifted Hosea’s prophecy as a treasured principle of operation when asked why he deliberately made connections with “questionable” people:

While Jesus was having dinner at Matthew’s house, many tax collectors and sinners came and ate with him and his disciples. When the Pharisees saw this, they asked his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” On hearing this, Jesus said, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.” (Matthew 9:10-12, NIV)

And when confronted about “questionable” activities Jesus appealed to the same source of Hosea’s prophecy:

“Look! Your disciples are doing what is unlawful on the Sabbath.” Jesus answered, “Haven’t you read what David did when he and his companions were hungry? He entered the house of God, and he and his companions ate the consecrated bread—which was not lawful for them to do, but only for the priests. Or haven’t you read in the Law that the priests on Sabbath duty in the temple desecrate the Sabbath and yet are innocent? I tell you that something greater than the temple is here. If you had known what these words mean, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the innocent.” (Matthew 12:2-7, NIV)

One can never go wrong with mercy and grace. If in doubt between whether to judge another or show mercy, the Christian’s choice is clear. Grace and love create connections – reconnecting the disconnected. The heart of true Christian spirituality is a deep kinship with the divine. Whenever that relation is broken or severed, it is vital to restore it. The means of doing so is not judgment but mercy.

Chesed is more than a word; it is a way of life. God wants mercy. Grace is the Lord’s divine will. So, let us today receive the forgiveness of Jesus and devote ourselves to prayer and works of love which come from a heart profoundly touched by grace.  May the result be healing of that which has been broken, and reconciled relationships with others.

Merciful and loving God, the One who shows amazing grace, forgive us for our wanderings away from the divine life. Return us, again, to the grace of Jesus Christ our Savior so that our hearts will be renewed and aflame with love for others.  In the Name of the Father, Son, and Spirit, the Great Three in One.  Amen.

Micah 5:1-5a – The Shepherd Leader

Coptic Church icon of Jesus the Good Shepherd

Jerusalem, enemy troops
    have surrounded you;
they have struck Israel’s ruler
    in the face with a stick.

Bethlehem Ephrath,
you are one of the smallest towns
    in the nation of Judah.
But the Lord will choose
one of your people
    to rule the nation—
someone whose family
    goes back to ancient times.
The Lord will abandon Israel
    only until this ruler is born,
and the rest of his family
    returns to Israel.
Like a shepherd
    taking care of his sheep,
this ruler will lead
    and care for his people
by the power and glorious name
    of the Lord his God.
His people will live securely,
and the whole earth will know
    his true greatness,
because he will bring peace. (CEV)

In Micah’s day there was no peace on earth, goodwill to all. In the eighth century B.C.E. the powerful Assyrian Empire came and conquered the northern kingdom of Israel, deporting many of the people and re-populating the cities with their own.

The Assyrian takeover of Israel not only left the northern kingdom in shambles but had a large impact on the southern kingdom of Judah.  All of Judah and Jerusalem were in extreme duress.  Even though Judah had not been conquered and was intact, they were still forced to pay tribute to the Assyrians to keep them at bay. 

The problem became even more exacerbated because the leadership of Judah sought to maintain their power and lifestyle.  The leaders neither looked to God for help nor looked out for the interests of the people.  Instead, they expected the already burdened poor to shoulder the burden of the tribute to the Assyrians.

What is more, thousands of refugees from Israel flooded into Judah and Jerusalem.  So, the already scant resources in Judah were pushed to the brink. Those in authority, the ones with resources who could make something of a difference, ended up taking advantage of the situation by buying fields and land at a fraction of its worth.  In some cases, they leveraged their power by simply pushing people of their land and taking it over. It was anything but a time of security, peace, and actions of goodwill.

Into this terrible situation of hardship and survival, Micah prophesied judgment upon the leaders who were oppressing the poor and displaced.  Micah’s message of hope was that a new kind of leader will come from humble origins, just like the common oppressed people of Judah.  The refugees, the displaced farmers, and the poor will have a champion.  He will feed and shepherd them, leading them to green pastures.  This leader will serve the people instead of the people serving the leader.

Christians see Jesus in Micah’s prophecy. Just as the ancient Jews needed hope and the promise of a different ruler, so today we, too, need hope and the anticipation of the leader who will come again using his power for security, peace, and goodwill.

Christ’s authority is different than earthly politicians and officials.  Israel and Judah had been so filled with bad kings and self-serving leadership over the centuries that Christ’s disciples could barely conceive of a different kind of rule. So, Jesus called his disciples together and said:

“You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them.  Not so with you.  Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all.  For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:42-43, NIV).

The people of Micah’s day needed to see beyond their terrible circumstances to hope of better days with food, peace, and protection.  We, too, feel insecure and anxious. We want leaders to be wise and just toward the vulnerable, the poor, and the displaced.  But while we look to our politicians and election cycles for our hope, the prophet Micah is jumping up and down, pointing us to a different leader – a shepherd leader.

Micah said the shepherd leader will come from Bethlehem.  When Micah proclaimed this, King David, the original shepherd king, had been dead for nearly three-hundred years. The people immediately made the connection between the coming leader and David.  There would be restoration and renewal!  A benevolent kingly reign is coming! 

Ethiopian Orthodox Church depiction of Jesus the Bread of Life

“Bethlehem” is two Hebrew words put together: beth (“house”) and lechem (“bread”) thus being “House of Bread.” God was communicating that the coming shepherd leader would provide abundant food and care for them. God wanted, and still wants, a society that does not feed on itself, but is a house of bread for others. Jesus is the Bread of Life. Christ feeds us so that we will become a people who offer bread to others – both physical and spiritual bread.

Jesus is the bread for all the hungers we have in this life. We hunger for security in our world; satisfaction in our daily work; loved ones to be healthy and happy. In short, we hunger for peace. Our spiritual stomachs growl with hunger for spiritual food.  Many are spiritually starving because they are searching for peace and goodwill in places without food.

Satisfaction, contentment, and peace have come from the most unlikely places of Bethlehem and Nazareth. Can anything good come from villages in Judea that do not even show up on most maps of the ancient world?  Peace, hope, and goodwill can and do come from the least expected places and people. 

Christ was not born in the halls of power. Yet, through him there is peace, in the complete sense of the word. Jesus is the One who brings a full-orbed wholeness and wellness to life, no matter the situations around us. Jesus is our peace:

Like a shepherd, God will tend the flock; he will gather lambs in his arms and lift them onto his lap. He will gently guide the nursing ewes. (Isaiah 40:11, CEB)

“Yes, I will feed my flock, and I will lead them to a place of rest. I will search for the lost sheep. I will bring back the sheep that were scattered and put bandages on the sheep that were hurt. I will make the weak sheep strong, but I will destroy the fat and powerful shepherds. I will feed them the punishment they deserve.” (Ezekiel 34:15-16, ERV)

 “I am the Good Shepherd. I know my own sheep and my own sheep know me. In the same way, the Father knows me, and I know the Father. I put the sheep before myself, sacrificing myself if necessary. You need to know that I have other sheep in addition to those in this pen. I need to gather and bring them, too. They’ll also recognize my voice. Then it will be one flock, one Shepherd.” (John 10:14-16, MSG)

“I am the bread of life. He who comes to Me shall never hunger.” (John 6:35, NKJV)

When Jesus originally said those words, it was scandalous, unheard of rhetoric. So, Jesus, the stinker he could be, pressed it even more:

“I am the bread of life. Your ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness, yet they died. But here is the bread that comes down from heaven, which anyone may eat and not die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats this bread will live forever. This bread is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world… Very truly I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man… you have no life in you. (John 6:48-51, 53, NIV)

We are to ingest Jesus – to be filled with him. We need Jesus because he is our house of bread, our peace, our shepherd, and our king. Believing in him is to give our lives to him. The greatest Christmas gift we can give this season is the gift of our lives to Jesus Christ, the promised Messiah.

Lord Jesus, I have strayed far from your flock and taken matters into my own hands. I have chosen to feed in pastures that will never take care of my real hunger.  I need Your forgiveness. I believe You died on the cross for all the things I have done and left undone.  You rose from the grave to give me life. So, I want to stop going my own way and start going yours. Amen.