Hebrews 12:3-17 – Don’t Let Bitterness Take Over

Think about Jesus, who endured opposition from sinners, so that you don’t become tired and give up.

You struggle against sin, but your struggles haven’t killed you. You have forgotten the encouraging words that God speaks to you as his children:

“My child, pay attention when the Lord disciplines you.
Don’t give up when he corrects you.
The Lord disciplines everyone he loves.
He severely disciplines everyone he accepts as his child.”

Endure your discipline. God corrects you as a father corrects his children. All children are disciplined by their fathers. If you aren’t disciplined like the other children, you aren’t part of the family. On earth we have fathers who disciplined us, and we respect them. Shouldn’t we place ourselves under the authority of God, the father of spirits, so that we will live? For a short time, our fathers disciplined us as they thought best.

Yet, God disciplines us for our own good so that we can become holy like him. We don’t enjoy being disciplined. It always seems to cause more pain than joy. But later on, those who learn from that discipline have peace that comes from doing what is right.

Strengthen your tired arms and weak knees. Keep walking along straight paths so that your injured leg won’t get worse. Instead, let it heal.

Try to live peacefully with everyone, and try to live holy lives, because if you don’t, you will not see the Lord. Make sure that everyone has kindness  from God so that bitterness doesn’t take root and grow up to cause trouble that corrupts many of you. 

Make sure that no one commits sexual sin or is as concerned about earthly things as Esau was. He sold his rights as the firstborn son for a single meal. You know that afterwards, when he wanted to receive the blessing that the firstborn son was to receive, he was rejected. Even though he begged and cried for the blessing, he couldn’t do anything to change what had happened. (God’s Word Translation)

Bitterness begins with a seed of resentful anger…

it steadily grows within the soil of antagonism…

then, buds of hostility pop out…

and a devastating crop of corruption, injustice, chaos, and trouble feeds the community with death.

A bitter spirit doesn’t appear overnight.

Something happens, an event for which a person neither wanted nor expected.

And life becomes more difficult and sad.

A change or a loss occurred. It could be anything: a spouse walks out and asks for divorce; a job transfer or termination happens without any warning or discussion; estrangement occurs between friends; the house burns down; a bankruptcy looms in the near future; it’s hard to make ends meet; items are stolen; assault, abuse, and ridicule violate a person, family, or community.

These and a thousand other events happen in this old fallen world. It makes us angry, and rightly so. And yet, if that anger stews within us for too long, and grudges are nursed and coddled, it turns eventually into the bitterness which gives us gangrene of the soul. Then, like a nasty weed, the bitterness spreads and takes over the garden.

Don’t let bitterness take over your garden.

The ancient Hebrew Christians were in danger of losing their resolve and reneging on their commitment to Christ. Their circumstances had been so adverse, for so long, that they just did not have any more fight in them to keep going. 

The believers were losing their faith. They began holding onto grudges and letting go of their spiritual commitment; instead of holding fast to perseverance and discarding their resentments toward others, and even God.

Yes, life was a challenge. But, no, it wasn’t because God didn’t love them or was in some way just mean or capricious. The struggling believers were invited to see their adversity as education by correction in the school of hard knocks. It was a class in faith formation, and many of them were failing it.

God loves us enough to not always make everything a bowl of Cap’n Crunch or a plate full of bacon. The Lord is going to dish up some broccoli and brussels sprouts and expects us to eat it – even if we don’t like it or don’t want to. We aren’t going to have a healthy faith apart from it, and God is just being a good Father.

It isn’t what happens to us that matters; it’s how we interpret what happened to us that makes all the difference.

Hard unwanted circumstances will either make us bitter, or better. They will never leave us the same.

The path to perseverance, healthy interpretations, and keeping the seed of bitterness away is through keeping our minds on Jesus and being kind to one another. Antagonism cannot grow in the soil of grace and mercy.

Sometimes we might forget that Jesus didn’t have it so easy on this earth. He faced ridicule, insults, hardship, and was not born with a silver spoon in his mouth. Eventually, he was tortured and killed, having done nothing wrong and everything right. And there was absolutely no bitterness in his heart about any of it.

If that was the path for our Lord, then it is silly to think that, as Christ’s followers, we should avoid suffering and hardship. 

So, think about Jesus.

Consider him who endured suffering without resentment.

Don’t give up.

Keep your head and your heart in the game.

Feelings of resentful anger, giving up, and getting back at others only brings self-harm and makes life unnecessarily difficult for everyone. Whenever such feelings arise, it is our inner person’s warning that it is time to retreat with God and get a divine perspective on your situation.

Jesus, you are the Suffering Servant who has gone before us and secured deliverance from sin, death, and hell. In the scope of eternity, it is a small thing for me to live for you and face any kind of ridicule and hardship it might bring to me. I only ask to be in solidarity with you in all things. Amen.

Luke 19:45-48 – Jesus Cleans House

A bronze panel of Jesus chasing the merchants from the Temple by Lorenzo Ghiberti (1378-1455)

When Jesus entered the temple courts, he began to drive out those who were selling. “It is written,” he said to them, “‘My house will be a house of prayer’; but you have made it ‘a den of robbers.’”

Every day he was teaching at the temple. But the chief priests, the teachers of the law and the leaders among the people were trying to kill him. Yet they could not find any way to do it, because all the people hung on his words. (New International Version)

Jesus seems a bit like an actor in an old western movie. He’s the sheriff who drifts into town, sizes up the situation, shoots up the bad guys, defends the women and children, and cleans up the town. 

It’s a side to Jesus that might surprise some.

Jesus is no simple one-dimensional person, as if he’s always calm and picking dandelions. Christ is fully human and fully God – a complex person full of both human and divine anger. Today’s Gospel lesson reminds us that Jesus defies stereotyping, and that we need to see a fuller profile of who he is, and what he is up to.

Jesus is not only the merciful servant who graciously heals at the temple; but he is also a mighty judge who is intolerant of unjust systems and cleans house. 

Because Jesus is superior to everything, he is not some Being that we can domesticate for our own personal use. He did not come to this earth as some sort of spiritual vitamin supplement, or to be on call 24/7 in order to bail us out when we need it, or help us get ahead in life.

Instead, zeal for his Father’s house consumes Jesus. (John 2:13-17)

Jesus driving the merchants out of the Temple by Raymond Balze (1818-1909)

Christ sought to please the Father. Jesus oversees what the church and Christians are supposed to be. 

It’s our task to conform to Christ, and not the other way around. 

That happens whenever we let Jesus be the sheriff who drives out our sin, and, at the same time, the town doctor who brings the needed healing to our lives. 

Jesus cleaned house by attacking the system he saw operating.

It was Passover, the time when all pious Israelites made the pilgrimage to Jerusalem. Cattle, sheep, and doves were used for sacrifices. And the only place where those sacrifices were made was at the Temple in Jerusalem.  This meant that anyone wanting to worship God from outside of Jerusalem would have to do some traveling. 

Over time, a system was set up: Vendors established kiosks which lined the Temple courts; and they sold animals for the required sacrifices, as a matter of convenience. 

Since there were thousands of folks who came from a long way, often from outside of Israel, they brought their foreign currency with them, and it could be exchanged at the tables set up by money-changers.

Perhaps that all sounds practical. A little capitalism which provides a service for the people doesn’t seem all bad. So, what’s the problem? 

Jesus didn’t have a problem with capitalism per se; his problem with the whole system is that it should not even exist – these guys should not be in the Temple, at all! 

Jesus attacked the system and made a western movie scene out of it because the vendors and money-changers, even if using sound business practices (which they weren’t) should not even be there. For Jesus, it trivialized the Temple and took away from its intended purpose as a house of prayer for all nations.

Here’s how the system was supposed to work:

Coming to the Temple from outside of Jerusalem was never intended to be easy or convenient.

Making the pilgrimage to Jerusalem was supposed to be difficult. For the past year, since the last Passover, a family raised a newborn lamb in their house. Parents and children all took part in caring for it.

Then, when it was time, they all journeyed to Jerusalem together, taking turns carrying the year old lamb over their shoulders. Everyone knew what was coming. Their precious lamb, now a cherished part of the family, would be given in sacrifice at the Temple.

It was all a very powerful reminder of sin’s cost and how terrible it truly is.

Entering Jerusalem with no animal, and only money to buy one, is a cheap facsimile of real worship.

It misses the entire point of the system. It hinders people from genuinely connecting with God through prayer.  And Jesus will not put up with it – to the point of violently driving the whole system out of the Temple.

Jesus didn’t mess around with the sinful system. He didn’t politely ask the money-changers to move their tables somewhere else; he didn’t strike a deal with those selling animals to market them at cost. No. Instead, he went all town sheriff on them because the whole system was a blasphemous act against the right and true worship of God.

It has been the sin of the Church, through the centuries, to find ways of doing ministry and worship by not actually doing it (e.g., selling indulgences). 

We might feel good by simply attending a worship service, or offering some obligatory prayers, and giving money without having done anything to meaningfully connect with God. Our devotion may not be toward bringing something of ourselves to sacrifice by using our spiritual gifts and laying our lives down for others. 

It’s really a heart issue. For example, we might rightly give to missionaries or mission projects. Yet, if we give without any thought to doing missions ourselves and being missional people, then we are in grave need of having a clean house by overturning the tables in our hearts. 

17th century Ethiopian depiction of Christ cleansing the Temple

Jesus cleaning house was not an end in itself; he did it so that the Temple could be used for its intended purpose: A house of prayer. A place of healing. A gathering of collective praise to God.

Whenever an existing system is challenged, there will be those who push back because they benefit from the way things are.

The religious leaders were incensed by Christ’s systemic change. The behavior of Jesus challenged their authority, and they were angry about losing some of their power – not to mention jealous and envious that the people hung on his every word.

Jealousy rots the bones. Envy and selfish ambition accompany every evil practice and are behind every evil system. (Proverbs 14:30; James 3:14-16)

The real culprit behind the Temple system, as well as our own conflicts and disagreements is our selfish anger, our abject jealousy that someone else is receiving something which should be mine, and our insidious envy of wanting what another has.

Jesus knew he would upset and anger the religious leaders. But he cared enough about the proper place of worship that he attacked the contrived Temple system that fed on obscuring what real sacrifice was. Christ was willing to take on the establishment and reestablish a house of prayer for all people.

The way for us has been made clear through the death of Christ. Jesus has removed the old system and replaced it with the new. (Hebrews 8:13)

Therefore, we ought to be a beacon of hope for all who are coming to God and desire to offer their sacrifice of service or praise. We must eliminate any system, rule, or practice that eviscerates true worship.

May we follow the Lord Jesus by being active and proactive in making the way clear for others to come to God. And the first step to doing so is by having God clean house on our own hearts.

It’s what a good deputy sheriff would do.

Create in me a clean heart, O God,
    and put a new and right spirit within me.

The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit;
    a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise. Amen.

Acts 7:44-53 – Pickle Barrel Christians

“The Holy Tent where God spoke to our ancestors was with them in the desert. God told Moses how to make this Tent, and he made it like the plan God showed him. Later, Joshua led our ancestors to capture the lands of the other nations. Our people went in, and God forced the other people out. When our people went into this new land, they took with them this same Tent they had received from their ancestors. They kept it until the time of David, who pleased God and asked God to let him build a house for him, the God of Jacob. But Solomon was the one who built the Temple.

“But the Most High does not live in houses that people build with their hands. As the prophet says:

‘Heaven is my throne,
    and the earth is my footstool.
So do you think you can build a house for me? says the Lord.
    Do I need a place to rest?
Remember, my hand made all these things!’”

Stephen continued speaking: “You stubborn people! You have not given your hearts to God, nor will you listen to him! You are always against what the Holy Spirit is trying to tell you, just as your ancestors were. Your ancestors tried to hurt every prophet who ever lived. Those prophets said long ago that the One who is good would come, but your ancestors killed them. And now you have turned against and killed the One who is good. You received the law of Moses, which God gave you through his angels, but you haven’t obeyed it.” (New Century Version)

Every year it’s a guarantee that some folks will complain about the weather. In the summer it’s too hot; in the winter, too cold. Can’t wait for autumn to come, then when it’s here, the murmuring comes out about how the weekend weather won’t cooperate with personal plans.

No matter the season, no matter the weather, somebody will be grumbling about it.

A big reason why I personally hold to the Christian Calendar with its liturgical seasons is that it helps shape me spiritually so that I can avoid being a stubborn complaining fool.

It seems like some folks have been baptized in pickle juice and inhabit a church resembling a pickle barrel. They have something negative to say about everything. And even when they acknowledge they don’t really understand something, they’ll still give a stone-faced retort, “I’m against it.”

They’re, ironically, surprised when they find themselves in a pickle.

The liturgical calendar, when properly observed, keeps us grounded in faith, hope, and love. There are plenty of things in this old fallen world which can take our eyes off our calling as Christians. Pandemics, politics, poverty, and pain can mess with us.

If we aren’t on solid spiritual ground, all the misfortunes of this life can take a significant toll on us. And for all the tangible things we see which creates angst within us, we miss the invisible God because our spiritual eyes are blind from all that vinegar in the pickle barrel.

Like the ancient Israelites for whom Stephen railed against in our New Testament lesson for today, we might become stubborn, hard-headed, and inflexible. We get lost in doing things our own way, and wanting our way, to the neglect of what God wants. 

Whenever that happens, there is damage to God’s people, God’s name, and God’s law. Rather than tongues being used for praising the Lord and encouraging others, God’s prophets who are calling us to holiness are verbally decapitated.

Anytime someone believes they have piously figured out everything, they will soon find themselves fighting against God.

The Lord of All has not called us to figure out every mystery and nail down each uncertainty. Those who claim to have done it are living in a pickle barrel. Perhaps they will eventually discover how large and immense God really is – much bigger than our puny thoughts and misguided practices. 

How then shall we live?

Let go of our illusions of power and privilege.

Submit afresh to the Lord for whom we must bow in all things. 

Open our spiritual eyes so that we can see the God who made the universe.

Take up our holy calling as Christ’s ambassadors, instead of expecting Jesus to be the ambassador for us.

If we can do that, then we are well on our way to seeing the grand and immense God of all.

So be humble under God’s powerful hand. Then he will lift you up when the right time comes.

1 Peter 5:6, ERV

The following practices can help us become more spiritually flexible and open to the Spirit’s work:

  • Stretch your faith muscle. Physical muscles which get little to no use will atrophy – which is why people who are confined to bed or with limitations need physical therapists to help work the muscles. Spiritually, if we are rarely or never in positions which work our faith muscle, then that faith will diminish and eventually atrophy. Faith is not static, but dynamic. It needs to be worked.
  • Breathe deeply. Proper breathing is essential in using our bodies. The same is true spiritually. Fear, worry, and anxiety cause us to have shallow breathing and unable to think straight. When we are amped-up about something, focus on doing some breath prayers, i.e., breathing in saying, “More of you,” and breathing out saying, “Less of me.”
  • Avoid extreme positions. A hyper-extended muscle will tear and cause a lot of damage. An acceptance of limitations and an awareness of our body’s true capacity prevents us from trying to do something our body simply cannot do. Our faith will not support extreme positions which alienate people and put God to the test.
  • Move more. Getting in bodily shape does not have to be dramatic and involve triathlons. Most of us simply need to get out of our chairs and move a bit more and we would be a lot healthier. Faith is mostly lived in the mundane daily decisions of life. Consistently taking small steps of faith each day will go a long way toward our spiritual health and vitality – not to mention helping us see a big God at work.
  • Listen. It is always best to listen to your body— only push it as far as it can handle, even if it is little by little. Many people would be better served if they would just listen to their gut and the spirit God put within them – rather than pushing themselves and others beyond what they can handle. Behind the attempt at doing too much is typically an issue of wanting the kind of control God possesses.

To do the will of God, we must have a growing awareness of a big unlimited God who cannot be contained in a tent or a building; and a small, limited self who is dependent upon God.

This will take relaxing the puckered pickle face and opening to greater flexibility. If you are not in the habit of following the Christian Calendar through the year, now is a good time to start. After all, nobody wants to smell like they just crawled out of a pickle barrel.

Holy God, heaven is your throne and the earth your footstool. You cannot be kept within any one church or any single place.  You are much too big for that!  Forgive me for my small thoughts of you and my weak faith. I humble myself before you so that you can live in and through me for the sake of Jesus. Amen.

Psalm 74 – A Devastating Loss

Our God, why have you
    completely rejected us?
Why are you so angry
    with the ones you care for?
Remember the people
    you rescued long ago,
the tribe you chose
    for your very own.

Think of Mount Zion,
    your home;
walk over to the temple
left in ruins forever
    by those who hate us.

Your enemies roared like lions
    in your holy temple,
and they have placed
    their banners there.
It looks like a forest
    chopped to pieces.
They used axes and hatchets
    to smash the carvings.
They burned down your temple
    and badly disgraced it.
They said to themselves,
    “We’ll crush them!”
Then they burned each one
of your meeting places
    all over the country.
There are no more miracles
    and no more prophets.
Who knows how long
    it will be like this?

Our God, how much longer
    will our enemies sneer?
Won’t they ever stop
    insulting you?
Why don’t you punish them?
    Why are you holding back?

Our God and King,
you have ruled
    since ancient times;
you have won victories
    everywhere on this earth.
By your power you made a path
    through the sea,
and you smashed the heads
    of sea monsters.
You crushed the heads
    of the monster Leviathan,
then fed him to wild creatures
    in the desert.
You opened the ground
for streams and springs
    and dried up mighty rivers.
You rule the day and the night,
and you put the moon
    and the sun in place.
You made summer and winter
    and gave them to the earth.

Remember your enemies, Lord!
They foolishly sneer
    and won’t respect you.
You treat us like pet doves,
    but they mistreat us.
Don’t keep forgetting us
and letting us be fed
    to those wild animals.
Remember the agreement
    you made with us.
Violent enemies are hiding
in every dark corner
    of the earth.
Don’t disappoint those in need
    or make them turn from you,
but help the poor and homeless
    to shout your praises.
Do something, God!
    Defend yourself.
Remember how those fools
    sneer at you all day long.
Don’t forget the loud shouts
    of your enemies. (Contemporary English Version)

God’s temple was violated. The center and symbol of Jewish worship, culture, and life was gone.

Although we know that nothing lasts forever, that doesn’t mean we are always okay with it.

Asaph, the psalmist, was definitely not okay with the temple’s destruction. It was more than the loss of a building. For Asaph and his people, Jerusalem and the temple were the glue which held the world together.

They lost their center of being. And it was devastating to them.

Everyone and every society has their center, those values and practices which makes them a people. We all need a public center that defines who we are and what we are about. There must be a gravity that holds us to our place and doesn’t allow us to stray into oblivion and nothingness.

The central core of the people was eviscerated. So, today’s psalm is a lament for Jerusalem. It is a painful emotional and spiritual cry which goes well beyond bricks and mortar and the mere physical.

The ruin of the temple, Asaph complains, is the ruin of their God. Yes, it was the Babylonians who came and did the destroying and the de-centering. But it was God’s temple. God is the One responsible. It was God’s action. So, Asaph contends with God and comes at him with full challenge.

Asaph appealed to the Lord much like we do today. “Hey, God, remember how things were back there. It was good, right!? Now look at everything. It’s a mess.” The language is all meant to persuade God that things are so bad, that they are completely intolerable; thus, the Lord should do something about it.

God is bigger than the temple. So, therefore, God can and should restore the temple and make things right again, Asaph reasons. He sounds much like a person in the throes of grief, desperately trying to bargain with God to get things back to the way they were.

Point by point, the psalmist gives a sort of play-by-play to God about the awful situation and what happened. These guys who came and did their dirty work are ultimately your enemies, God, not just ours. So, take notice and act!

Remember the good old days, God, when you performed mighty acts of power against formidable foes, Asaph insisted. Against all odds, the Lord came through for the people… But now… there’s nothing. No divine action. The Babylonians came to Jerusalem, destroyed the city and temple, and got away with it.

Like a person experiencing extreme dizziness, Asaph and the people had a terrible spiritual vertigo which left them unable to get their balance and find their center.

Along with Asaph, in our horrible grief, we not only appeal to God, but we also insist, even tell God exactly what he must do, as if we were the Creator and Yahweh the creature. “Listen, Mr. Almighty God, you made a covenant with us and now you’re reneging on it with all this ridiculous silence and inaction.”

Yet, Asaph really knows better. He knows that, although the temple and the city are important as visible structures, the invisible God transcends all the tangible things we hold so tightly to.

We live in a day and age when all our religious structures are being dismantled, destroyed, done away with. Few persons now look to an institutional and visible building or system for their spirituality and worship.

And, although many believers may lament the changes and the disappearance of churches and religion, there still remains an invisible God to whom we can address – the very same God whom Asaph addressed all those millennia ago.

We are not, therefore, reduced to despair. In the end, it isn’t about buildings, ministries, programs, budgets, or church attendance – it’s about the source of life and hope in the absence of past knowable structures. It is a naked faith in the God who is there.

Lord Jesus Christ, by your patience in suffering you hallowed earthly pain and gave us the example of obedience to your Father’s will: Be near me in my time of weakness and pain; sustain me by your grace so that my strength and courage may not fail; heal me according to you will; and help me always to believe that what happens to me here is of little account if you hold me in eternal life, my Lord and my God. Ame