Isaiah 59:15-21

            The “bystander effect,” or “bystander apathy,” is a social psychology term that refers to cases in which individuals do not offer any means of help to a victim when other people are present. In other words, in experiment after experiment over the past fifty years social psychologists have found that the greater the number of bystanders, the less likely it is that any one of them will help.  For example, researchers Bibb Latané and Judith Rodin staged an experiment in 1969 around a woman in distress. Seventy-percent of the people who were alone called out or went to help the woman after they believed she had fallen and was hurt, but when there were other people in the room only forty-percent offered help.
 
            It’s far too easy to stand with our hands our pockets when there are other people around to serve and to do what is just.  “When the LORD noticed that justice had disappeared, he became very displeased.  It disgusted him even more to learn that no one would do a thing about it.”  Our rationalizations for not becoming involved are legion:  “Someone else better qualified than me will do it.”  “But what if I screw up?”  And the ever-present “I’m just too busy” are all ways to justify ourselves into not doing the work of justice in the world.
 
            If we are apathetic to the needs of others less privileged than ourselves, then we must come back to the Old Testament prophets and give them a very serious hearing.  The prophet Isaiah lets us know that none of us are anonymous; we have all been given gifts as the people of God in order to serve the greater good.  The Lord dispenses his grace and glory primarily through active people who eschew being bystanders in the world.  God inevitably gets noticed in the public square when his people are attentive to his justice.
 

 

            Just God, you care about the people of this world receiving the things they need to live and flourish well in life.  Inspire and empower all of your people, including me, to spread a spirit of service in our local communities and churches, through Jesus Christ our Lord in the power of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Isaiah 59:1-15


            “Truth stumbles in the public square.”  That is the prophet Isaiah’s summary phrase of ancient Israel’s moral situation.  He wrote to a post-exile community that was still reeling from losing their land and finding their way among the rule of others.  They were not a free people – by a long shot.  And their deliverance from Gentile dominance was not coming anytime soon, for a reason.  They still had not really dealt with their own problems.  They wanted salvation without confession, and freedom without repentance.  But Isaiah reminded them that their separation from God was a result of their violence, deceitfulness, and corrupt system of justice.  The Jews were neither pursuing peace, nor the common good.  There would be no deliverance apart from facing those sins and renouncing them.
             Without a virtuous citizenry, truth stumbles in the public square.  That is, if national morality and personal ethics are absent, truth erodes and any system of laws and justice devolve into a morass of selfish agendas and lack of concern for all persons.  People might haggle and disagree on what is the best way forward for a given nation, but if they do not begin with the foundation of truth and virtue, then violence is the ultimate outcome because people want what they want and do not give a damn about anything else.  They will kill and covet, but they will not get what they want since their motives are unethical and immoral.
             This is why the spiritual tools of prayer and fasting, confession and repentance, faith and public moral action must be the underlying conscience of a nation.  Without virtue, truth may stumble but will always be present to speak to power.  Government is designed as an institution to promote the common good of all citizens.  If divine intervention is necessary, the proper course of action is acknowledgment of transgressions.  
             Sovereign God, you are the invisible ruler among the nations.  Our sins are many and they bear witness against us that sound judgment has left the room.  Christ, have mercy upon us, and grant us your peace through the blessed Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Isaiah 57:14-21

            Our God is the ultimate expert on helping the helpless, giving hope to the hopeless, and healing the broken.  In this American post-election season, many, even throughout the world, have either great anxiety or great relief; they are in either in a terrible funk, or are quietly in jubilation.  But from whatever emotional place we find ourselves today, Scripture always has something to say to us that is relevant and real. 
 
            The Old Testament prophets give a word from God.  It is a word that is full of judgment, but laced with grace; it reveals a hard road, but assures that the road will be made level and passable.  Today let the words of Isaiah penetrate your weary soul, and let this word from the Lord become internalized as a steady ballast for your ever-swinging feelings:
 
14 God says, “Rebuild the road!
Clear away the rocks and stones
so my people can return from captivity.”
15 The high and lofty one who lives in eternity,
the Holy One, says this:
“I live in the high and holy place
with those whose spirits are contrite and humble.
I restore the crushed spirit of the humble
and revive the courage of those with repentant hearts.
16 For I will not fight against you forever;
I will not always be angry.
If I were, all people would pass away—
all the souls I have made.
17 I was angry,
so I punished these greedy people.
I withdrew from them,
but they kept going on their own stubborn way.
18 I have seen what they do,
but I will heal them anyway!
I will lead them.
I will comfort those who mourn,
19     bringing words of praise to their lips.
May they have abundant peace, both near and far,”
says the Lord, who heals them.
20 “But those who still reject me are like the restless sea,
which is never still
but continually churns up mud and dirt.
21 There is no peace for the wicked,”
says my God. (New Living Translation)
 

 

            Lord God Almighty, I trust you to save me.  Then, I will not be afraid.  My strength comes from you.  I will celebrate your greatness because you are here to help me through Jesus Christ my Lord, in the power of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

John 5:19-29

            There are many things in this world of great importance:  how we govern ourselves as a free people in America; tackling issues of poverty, education, taxes, healthcare, terrorism, and international relations; local community relationships and business; the ability to go to work every day and make a decent contributive living; being a responsible citizen; and, loving and nurturing our families.  Yet, it is my unshakable conviction that the issue above all issues, the height of importance for every human being on planet earth, is our relation to God in Jesus Christ.  In short, people need the Lord.
 
            Jesus said, “I tell you for certain that everyone who hears my message and has faith in the one who sent me has eternal life and will never be condemned.  They have already gone from death to life.”  Seasons, eras, centuries, and even millennia come and go; people are born, live, and die; generations exist and then are no more; but Jesus is alive, and he continually lives bringing life from dust, beauty from ashes, and everlasting meaning from seeming meaninglessness.
 
            Today Jesus is still on the throne of all creation.  Right now Jesus remains attentive to people, even interceding for us at the right hand of his Father in heaven.  At this moment, God’s Holy Spirit roams the earth and continues to mysteriously and graciously apply all the redemptive consequences of Christ’s cross and resurrection to the lives of millions.  Sometimes we just need to remember what is really of ultimate significance in this old broken world.  If people need the Lord, then it only makes real sense to live in ways that foster connection with Jesus.  So, this morning I did what I do every morning:  began the day with Scripture reading, prayer, reflection, and gratitude – all done with the realization that Christ’s authority is real and pervasive, and his reign is supreme.
 

 

            Sovereign God, in Christ you rule all of creation, even when it feels like you are distant.  Your authority is both benevolent and all-powerful.  Thank you for deliverance from sin, life in the Spirit, and your eventual return.  To you be all glory, honor, and praise.  Amen.

2 John

            Perhaps it is ironically significant that today’s lectionary New Testament lesson is all about love.  After an acrimonious season of electoral politicking, and a forward look at some more of the same, we need the message of this oft forgotten little epistle.  And, so, yet another irony is that this brief letter is nestled in a place in the New Testament where few believers ever take a peek.  Perhaps love itself has become a forgotten virtue among the very people entrusted to uphold its beauty and grace.
 
            Everything in the Christian life rises and falls with love.  Even to say this is a gross understatement because God himself is love.  John is known as the Apostle of love, and he consistently and constantly espoused the primacy and permanence of love whenever he had the chance.  Truth and love must go together, always.  John says to the church, personified as a very special woman, “We love you because the truth is now in our hearts, and it will be there forever.”
 
            The true muster of the church and of individual believers is their love.  A profound lack of love is the litmus test that belies a faulty and heretical doctrine of Jesus.  No love is always the clue that there is going to be some impure teaching behind it.  The real enemy of Christ is the one who claims Christianity but does not love in either word or deed.  If we really want to love God, we will love one another, and vice-versa.
 

 

            Loving God, there is never a time when you do not love.  Let that same virtue dwell in me all the time, as well, so that the world will know there is a God in heaven who cares.  Amen.

Psalm 98

Sing a new song to the Lord!
He has worked miracles,
and with his own powerful arm,
he has won the victory.
The Lord has shown the nations
that he has the power to save
and to bring justice.
God has been faithful
in his love for Israel,
and his saving power is seen
everywhere on earth.
Tell everyone on this earth
to sing happy songs
in praise of the Lord.
Make music for him on harps.
Play beautiful melodies!
Sound the trumpets and horns
and celebrate with joyful songs
for our Lord and King!
Command the ocean to roar
with all of its creatures,
and the earth to shout
with all of its people.
Order the rivers
to clap their hands,
and all of the hills
to sing together.
Let them worship the Lord!
He is coming to judge
everyone on the earth,
and he will be honest
and fair. (Contemporary English Version)
 
            I hope you don’t miss the point of the psalm:  sing to the Lord a new song.  Yes a “new” song.  Other than the fact we ought to bring fresh music to our worship of God, this is a summons to get an original voice.  Instead of going down the same ruts in our speaking and living, being attentive to God’s mighty deeds helps us break out into new vistas of living.  This attention to God’s works through a new song becomes so invigorating that everyone and everything on earth is encouraged to join into the imaginative expression of praise.
 
            We are to praise God in this present time because of what he has done in the past, always looking to the future when he will come again.  If we don’t make the effort to offer praise that is fresh, creative, and thoughtful for our present time, then we ought not to be surprised when a watching world gives a shoulder-shrugging “meh” to our tepid singing.  And if such vibrant praise seems foreign, then the time is past due for a renewed focus on the works of God in history because he really has done miraculous things for us.
 

 

            Mighty God, your holy arm of power has done incredible works in history.  What is more, you have done influential works in my life, especially through deliverance from evil and transformation of heart.  For this, and much more, I praise the gracious and wonderful name of Jesus Christ, my Savior and Lord.  Amen.

Acts 24:10-23


            We all have a conscience.  It is the moral compass, the intangible guidance system, and the sense we cannot always explain which is constantly with us giving us insight beyond mere facts and objectivity.  Without a conscience we are bereft and aimless in this world.  But paying attention to the conscience and allowing it to do its vital work in our lives will serve us quite well.  It is the constant angel on our shoulder, directing us to better things and the good life.
             When we allow the conscience to dictate a course forward, we are neither influenced toward inaction in the face of stress, nor spurred to sinful activity and words when in trouble.  The conscience tempers our inbred fight-or-flight syndrome so that we engage properly in each adverse situation.  The Apostle Paul, when standing trial before Governor Felix, gave testimony to his Christian faith.  Paul gave a cogent apologetic for his life and ministry not because he was trying to get off the hook or because he thought it was his duty, but because of his conscience:  “I always strive to keep my conscience clear before man and God.”
             I will suggest to you that the reason Paul was able to accomplish so much in his life without fear, and his effective engagement with others came from his God-given inner resource of the conscience.  I cannot help but think:  What if I shared this same concern as Paul to always have my conscience clear before both God and others?  What if sought to make decisions and live my life continually in conversation with my conscience?  What if my church all did this?  What if everyone did this?  We would be in much better world, for sure.
             Gracious God, you really do provide everything we need for life and godliness in this world.  Help me to keep my conscience clear and tender toward your will so that others might experience through me the life-giving message of Jesus Christ, through the power of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.