Matthew 24:15-27 – Everything Will Change

“The prophet Daniel said that the disgusting thing that will cause destruction will stand in the holy place. When you see this (let the reader take note), those of you in Judea should flee to the mountains. Those who are on the roof should not come down to get anything out of their houses. Those who are in the field should not turn back to get their coats.

“How horrible it will be for the women who are pregnant or who are nursing babies in those days. Pray that it will not be winter or a day of rest, a holy day, when you flee. There will be a lot of misery at that time, a kind of misery that has not happened from the beginning of the world until now and will certainly never happen again. If God does not reduce the number of those days, no one will be saved. But those days will be reduced because of those whom God has chosen.

“At that time don’t believe anyone who tells you, ‘Here is the Messiah!’ or ‘There he is!’ False messiahs and false prophets will appear. They will work spectacular, miraculous signs and do wonderful things to deceive, if possible, even those whom God has chosen.Listen! I’ve told you this before it happens. So, if someone tells you, ‘He’s in the desert!’ don’t go out looking for him. And don’t believe anyone who says, ‘He’s in a secret place!’ The Son of Man will come again just as lightning flashes from east to west.” (God’s Word Translation)

Midwest American summers can be brutally hot and humid. And the winters can be terribly frigid and full of snow. 

Having lived in various university towns and worked with many college students, every Fall there are always new international students, and students from the American Deep South, that have never experienced a Midwest winter and snow. 

I might tell them, repeatedly, of the need for a sturdy winter coat before the snow flies. Yet, having never known sub-freezing, let alone sub-zero temperatures, it’s difficult to imagine such cold when the weather is warm. 

There is little belief that everything around them will change in a few short months to the point that it will be felt down to the bone.

At the coming of winter, I, or someone else, helped ensure they had a suitable coat. Even then, those students often bodily shake all winter and never take their scarves off.

Since none of us have yet experienced it, it might be difficult to imagine that someday Christ will return to judge the living and the dead. 

So, in order to help the disciples to grasp the coming future, Jesus told them to use discernment. Although it may seem improbable now, a time is coming which will be loaded with cosmic and cataclysmic changes. 

Sometimes, even for myself who has lived through many hard winters, it’s incredible to know that the landscape, as it is right now, will be completely different in another six months.

Seasons come and go. Eventually, the sky and the earth as we know it now will pass away. However, the words and ways of Jesus Christ will endure for all time. 

If we are attentive and alert, we will be ready. We will have a warm winter parka on hand.

For now, it means taking off the old clothes of fear, insecurity, hopelessness, and hate; and putting on the new clothes of righteousness, peace, and love in the Holy Spirit. 

You may not think winter is coming. But it is. It may even be here sooner than you believe.

Do you feel that chill in the air?

Almighty and everlasting Father, we long for the coming of your kingdom in Jesus Christ our Lord. We lament before you the signs that your kingdom has not yet come in its fullness. The signs of brokenness and divisions, oppression and abuse, poverty and loneliness, are everywhere present in this present world.

So, we cry out from the depths of our being for you to come and bring us humility, wisdom, discernment, comfort, and hope. Dispel the shadows of the night and turn our darkness into light, through Jesus Christ, your Son, our Lord who with you and the Holy Spirit reign as one God, now and forevermore. Amen.

Hebrews 10:32-39 – Don’t Throw Away Your Confidence

Remember those earlier days after you had received the light, when you endured in a great conflict full of suffering. Sometimes you were publicly exposed to insult and persecution; at other times you stood side by side with those who were so treated. You suffered along with those in prison and joyfully accepted the confiscation of your property, because you knew that you yourselves had better and lasting possessions. So, do not throw away your confidence; it will be richly rewarded.

You need to persevere so that when you have done the will of God, you will receive what he has promised. For,

“In just a little while,
    he who is coming will come
    and will not delay.”

And,

“But my righteous one will live by faith.
    And I take no pleasure
    in the one who shrinks back.”

But we do not belong to those who shrink back and are destroyed, but to those who have faith and are saved. (New International Version)

Confidence is necessary for the Christian life. It’s not optional. One can only persevere through trouble with some confident hope.

It’s one thing to bear up under a hard circumstance for a few days or weeks. It’s altogether another thing for that same hardship to continue for months, even years.

Living with such adversity everyday makes one tired… really tired. Feelings of hopelessness slowly creep within. And, after a while, the person or group of people just want the madness to end. So, they simply give up, being lost in their troubles, feeling alone and bereft of options.

Without the confident expectation of better days ahead, while in the throes of difficulty, a failure of faith can too easily happen.

To realize better days, it’s important to remember the earlier days. I’m not talking about living in the past and wishing it were the 1950s again with Beaver Cleaver across the street. This is not about believing that the past was the good old days, and that the present is bad.

Instead, we can recall and remember the ways we endured and persevered with joy in past experiences.

The original Christian recipients of the message of Hebrews needed to recall the various ways they stood firm and tall in their faith, despite the adversity.

In earlier times, they were insulted and persecuted. Yet, they showed solidarity with others in similar situations. The believers were attentive to prisoners and sought to meet their needs. And they responded to the confiscation of their property with joy because they knew there was so much more than this present life and it’s possessions.

But the persecution and the insults continued… day after day… with no apparent end….

The Christians began to lose their grip on faith. They needed to reconnect with their purpose, with why they were Christians to begin with.

Originally, the reason they had such incredible attitudes while enduring hard things is because they were pursuing heavenly treasure. Their earthly possessions were merely temporary things, not of eternal value. They understood that people have eternal value, not stuff, so the believers willingly focused their efforts in helping others.

However, over time, the band of believers lost their focus. All they could see was the pain and the difficulty. They became disconnected with their purpose. And so, they were in danger of losing their faith and becoming utterly hopeless.

What to do? Give up? Renege on faith? Adopt a “whatever will be, will be,” sort of philosophy?

No. Instead,

Remember what God has done for you.

Affirm what is right, just, and true.

Embrace faith and patience.

That’s what the prophet Habakkuk did. And his resilience helped to bring proper perspective to present troubles.

“Nothing that is worth doing can be achieved in a lifetime; therefore, we must be saved by hope.”

Reinhold Niebuhr (1892-1971)

Habakkuk was distressed over the corruption of his fellow Israelites. Things were askew and not right. So, he complained to God about it. 

God responded by informing Habakkuk that judgment was coming to Israel through the Babylonians. This was neither what Habakkuk expected nor wanted. The prophet grumbled even more because the Babylonians were more corrupt than the Israelites. 

The prophet was having a hard time, and it seemed God was only making things worse, not better.

Habakkuk struggled to come to terms with what God was doing, and not doing. Finally, he concluded the matter by reconnecting with his faith: 

Even though the fig trees have no blossoms,
    and there are no grapes on the vines;
even though the olive crop fails,
    and the fields lie empty and barren;
even though the flocks die in the fields,
    and the cattle barns are empty,
yet I will rejoice in the Lord!
    I will be joyful in the God of my salvation!
The Sovereign Lord is my strength!
    He makes me as surefooted as a deer,
    able to tread upon the heights. (Habakkuk 3:17-19, NLT)

Perhaps the most significant faith experience we can have, is to come to the point of complete trust in God so that our happiness is not dependent upon good circumstances. 

The truth we all must eventually come around to is that joy and security is independent of what’s going on around us. 

Even though we face difficulty, and even evil, confidence can still exist and thrive within us. We can still rejoice because we don’t need everything to go our way in order to be happy.

Faith, patience, and joy are neither cheap, nor easy. For them to remain rooted within us, we must affirm our commitment to Christ daily. And that requires remembering.

What’s more, there is a reward ahead if we persevere to the end.

We can remain patient, express faith, kindle hope, and remember necessary things whenever we stop doing unimportant things which do not add value to our ultimate goals.

So, be mindful of the things which are most important to you; and move through life at a pace of hope, not anxiety. Don’t throw away your spiritual confidence, just because things are continually hard.

God, give us grace to accept with serenity
the things that cannot be changed,
Courage to change the things
which should be changed,
and the Wisdom to distinguish
the one from the other.

Living one day at a time,
Enjoying one moment at a time,
Accepting hardship as a pathway to peace,
Taking, as Jesus did,
This sinful world as it is,
Not as I would have it,
Trusting that You will make all things right,
If I surrender to Your will,
So that I may be reasonably happy in this life,
And supremely happy with You forever in the next.

Amen. – The Serenity Prayer by Reinhold Niebuhr

Psalm 80:1-2, 8-19 – Longing for Restoration

Shepherd of Israel, listen!
    You, the one who leads Joseph as if he were a sheep.
    You, who are enthroned upon the winged heavenly creatures.
Show yourself before Ephraim, Benjamin, and Manasseh!
    Wake up your power!
Come to save us!…

You brought a vine out of Egypt.
    You drove out the nations and planted it.
You cleared the ground for it;
    then it planted its roots deep, filling the land.
The mountains were covered by its shade;
    the mighty cedars were covered by its branches.
It sent its branches all the way to the sea;
    its shoots went all the way to the Euphrates River.
So why have you now torn down its walls
    so that all who come along can pluck its fruit,
    so that any boar from the forest can tear it up,
    so that the bugs can feed on it?

Please come back, God of heavenly forces!
    Look down from heaven and perceive it!
Attend to this vine,
    this root that you planted with your strong hand,
    this son whom you secured as your very own.
It is burned with fire. It is chopped down.
    They die at the rebuke coming from you.
Let your hand be with the one on your right side—
    with the one whom you secured as your own—
    then we will not turn away from you!
Revive us so that we can call on your name.
    Restore us, Lord God of heavenly forces!
    Make your face shine so that we can be saved! (Common English Bible)

Let us continually keep in mind that the psalms are quite Jewish. Yes, I often refer to the psalms as the Church’s Prayer Book and unabashedly see them through Christian eyes. Yet, the psalter, at its core, are prayers and songs of the Jewish experience.

The deep longings and yearnings of the Jewish people within a constant stream of hardship, difficulty, and persecution give voice to all humanity. In other words, the bearing of the Jewish soul as the people of God is the crying out on behalf of us all.

The Jews know a thing or two about lament. Today’s psalm is a lament, a prayer, a longing for God to come and restore Israel. It is a cry for the Lord to no longer look upon them with anger. The people knew, in their exposed vulnerability, they needed God. They longed for their God to come and save them and to bring a revitalized nation.

Amid awful circumstances and emotional pain, it can be hard to focus with any sort of concentrated prayer. 

The Jews also help us here because they crafted and arranged the psalms in such a way as to enable and foster recall and memory. So, where many of us Gentiles can be rather more like pagans babbling on in our distress, the Jewish psalms offer us the ability of short, succinct, and staccato prayers. Early Christians called them “breath prayers.” 

Throughout the day we can utter “Stir up your power, O God; come to save us.”  The intention of saying it repeatedly in a day is not to get God’s attention – because we already have it. No, the purpose is to connect us with Divine resources for deliverance; to be in constant touch and continual communion with the One who can ultimately restore, renew, revitalize, and reform the world with justice and righteousness. 

Repeated short prayers offer us the opportunity to express our longing for the flourishing of the earth and its inhabitants, as well as to enjoy walking with God in the garden of fellowship, peace, and goodwill.

To pray is to be restored.

Restoration is a beautiful thing. I rarely watch makeover shows on television, but if I notice a program where an old house, seemingly better suited for the wrecking ball, getting restored to its original charm and beauty, I am hooked. 

We as people seem to resonate deeply with things being repaired and rejuvenated to looking brand new again.

Again, the Jewish people go before us, through the psalms, with the vision to see the old become new. Whereas some may get lost in the drab discouragement of a gray and dreary environment, forgetting the original shine of how things once were, Asaph, the consummate Jewish song leader, guided the people in remembering how God’s people enjoyed the covenant and the promises of God. 

Yet, over time, the relationship was not maintained and cared for; the people gradually slid into disrepair, much like a once grand old house, now merely a haunt for critters and birds. Centuries of neglecting prayer and worship brought a situation where it seemed the only recourse was to do away with the people and begin again.

I certainly do not want to be on the bad end of God’s anger. I would much rather learn my lesson from the Jewish experience and enjoy Divine favor.

I also long to see this old fallen world restored to her original beauty. So, we must come to God – not once – but again and again, over, and over. Like the hammer of perseverance, pounding nail after nail, so we must offer our prayers morning, noon, and night, day after day, crying out to God with the great cry of the Jewish people:  “Restore us, O God; let your face shine, that we may be saved!”

Merciful God of all nations bring restoration to our lives, our families, our faith communities, our workplaces, our human institutions, our neighborhoods, and our shared world. Send your Holy Spirit so that we might enjoy seasons of blessing again.  Restore, renew, revive, and rejuvenate our disordered love. May your face shine upon us once again through the mighty name of Jesus. Amen.

Psalm 11 – Fight, Flight, Freeze, or Faith?

I have taken refuge in the Lord.
How can you say to me:
“Flee to your mountain like a bird?
Wicked people bend their bows.
They set their arrows against the strings
to shoot in the dark at people whose motives are decent.
When the foundations of life
are undermined,
what can a righteous person do?”

The Lord is in his holy temple.
The Lord’s throne is in heaven.
His eyes see.
They examine Adam’s descendants.
The Lord tests righteous people,
but he hates wicked people and the ones who love violence.
He rains down fire and burning sulfur upon wicked people.
He makes them drink from a cup filled with scorching wind.
The Lord is righteous.
He loves a righteous way of life.
Decent people will see his face. (God’s Word Translation)

We all know what it feels like to take the brunt of someone’s poison verbal darts. And it’s scary. What do you do? In a state of fear, shock, or panic, we will likely either fight, flight, freeze, or faith.

If you have ever received a nasty email based on half-truths and accusations; stood dumbfounded as someone hurled misinformation and criticism at you; and/or experienced the victimization that comes from slanderous and gossiping tongues, then the psalmist knows exactly how you feel. 

Cobbling together a hasty email response, full of anger and vitriol, only sucks us into the person’s evil ways. Metaphorically punching someone in the face for their slap to your face is how the demonic realm handles offenses. Fighting back with an equal or greater force is diametrically opposed to the way of Jesus in loving our enemies and praying for those who persecute us.

Then, there is the response of taking flight from the nastiness. Indeed, it sometimes seems as if good people are always getting swallowed whole by unjust words and behaviors directed squarely at them. And it doesn’t help when the downers among us stroll along and give us their unhelpful fatalism about how there is nothing we can do and how nothing will ever change.

For others, they are just plain dumbfounded that another person can be so mean or controlling, so they freeze, unable to speak or do anything. They end up suffering in silence, without their victimization having a voice.

To be the target of evil speech or malevolent actions is, at the least, unsettling, and, at worst, can bring years of struggle, depression, and inability to serve. Yet, there is someone who sees it all, and that someone will address the wrong. We have an option beyond fighting back in anger or fleeing altogether in fear. We can trust God.

The Lord sits aloft, overseeing all, and knows everything humanity does and says. God always does right and wants justice done. Everyone who shares a divine sense of what is right and just will see God’s face. God will act because the Lord abhors and despises those who are cruel and enjoy violence.

It’s not a good idea to get on God’s bad side. The way to flare God’s anger is by possessing an acerbic tongue; relishing in verbal violence; and, having no remorse about any of it. Because God loves people, God hates evil. The righteous are to take solace in the truth that God really does see the harm done and is in a position to do something about it. Like the psalmist, we seek the Lord. The Lord fights our battles.

Whenever we are harassed and the ungodly give us a hard time, the psalmist isn’t offering some nice religious platitudes such as, “Just let go and let God,” “Everything works for the good of those who love God,” or “It’s okay, you’ll be in heaven someday.”

In another context, maybe those statements are helpful. But being in the teeth of the wicked, all is not okay. As much as some folks try to sanitize an evil situation with rainbows and butterflies, the evil is real, and it’s there. The truth is that everything is not okay. The earth is filled with violence, malevolence, oppression, injustice, and systemic evil. The psalmist knows this, all too well.

Humble yourselves under God’s power so that he may raise you up in the last day. Throw all your anxiety onto him because he cares about you. (1 Peter 5:6-7, CEB)

Today’s psalm is reminding and reassuring us that the Lord is aware of what’s going on and will most certainly do something about it. God will act to punish the wicked and deliver the Lord’s people. There may not be peace this present moment, yet it will not always be this way. We shall behold the face of the Lord.

The Lord is a righteous judge. Justice is the foundation of God’s throne. God sees the entire spectrum of humanity and can make a right assessment of people’s thoughts, intents, words, and actions. We, however, cannot. Therefore, it is most necessary for us to put our trust in a Divine Being who cares about right and wrong and has the power to act with justice.

Whenever we are hemmed-in through the schemes of diabolical persons and are powerless, there is always the choice to trust in the Lord. The outcome of every life on earth rests in the hands of God. And it will be a just and right rendering.

Trust in the Lord and do good. Seek peace and pursue it. We might struggle mightily on both the inside and outside – our hard circumstance might not change immediately – yet God is the One who will vindicate the just person when the time is right.

You are not alone. The Lord is with you always.

God of justice, look at the state of your servant and act on my behalf. Do not let evil prevail. Thwart the ungodly so that they can no longer do any harm. Amen.