Joshua 1:1-11 – On Meditation and Courage

Day and night, think about it.

After the death of Moses, the servant of the Lord, the Lord said to Joshua son of Nun, Moses’ aide: “Moses my servant is dead. Now then, you and all these people, get ready to cross the Jordan River into the land I am about to give to them—to the Israelites. I will give you every place where you set your foot, as I promised Moses. Your territory will extend from the desert to Lebanon, and from the great river, the Euphrates—all the Hittite country—to the Mediterranean Sea in the west. No one will be able to stand against you all the days of your life. As I was with Moses, so I will be with you; I will never leave you nor forsake you. Be strong and courageous, because you will lead these people to inherit the land I swore to their ancestors to give them.

“Be strong and very courageous. Be careful to obey all the law my servant Moses gave you; do not turn from it to the right or to the left, that you may be successful wherever you go. Keep this Book of the Law always on your lips; meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do everything written in it. Then you will be prosperous and successful. Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged, for the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go.”

So, Joshua ordered the officers of the people: “Go through the camp and tell the people, ‘Get your provisions ready. Three days from now you will cross the Jordan here to go in and take possession of the land the Lord your God is giving you for your own.’” (NIV)

The ancient Israelites were delivered from Egyptian bondage, wandered through the desert for forty years, and, after the death of their leader Moses, were poised to enter the land promised to them. It was going to be no cakewalk. There were pagan peoples entrenched in the land and it would be a huge accomplishment to conquer their territory. Joshua, the young aide-de-camp of Moses, now leader of the people, would be the one to go before them in battle. As you might understand, Joshua was likely nervous, perhaps even downright scared. 

So, the Lord came to Joshua and told him to be strong and courageous, to not be afraid to claim the good promise of the land. The path to success for Joshua, as well as all of God’s people, would not be by the physical sword but by the sword of the Lord, the Word of God. The Lord was plainspoken about the need to intimately know the Law given to the people and to continually meditate upon it. Being careful to do everything written within it, Joshua would find both the courage and the wisdom to lead the people to victory.

It remains true for all God’s people that faithful knowledge, sage wisdom, and careful adherence to Holy Scripture comes through meditation upon its contents. There is a great need amongst believers to continually ruminate on God’s Word. We may sometimes wonder how to address and deal with certain situations and problems that seem as large as taking the Promised Land. The place to begin is by going to the Word of God – not so much in an anxious, hasty, or impatient question-and-answer sort of way which looks for a quick response; but instead, in a slow, deliberate, contemplative way. 

Lasting and genuine spirituality, as well as a sense of settled success, comes not only through acknowledging the Bible is God’s Holy Word; it develops through meditating upon it consistently and continually.

Scripture memorization is a discipline worth pursuing. Having large chunks of Scripture within our minds and hearts helps us to home in on relevant and helpful verses, narratives, and messages when facing challenging situations and adverse circumstances. 

What is more, when engaged in tedious work, we can engage our minds in the practice of contemplation on those verses we have committed to memory. Meditation on God’s Word is a necessary practice if we want to have success in living the Christian life.

Courage and meditation are a package deal. Bravery and contemplation are meant to be wed together. One rarely comes without the other. Which means the realization of our good dreams for self and world need the practice of Scripture meditation.

God Almighty, my delight is in your law, and on it I meditate day and night (Psalm 1:2).

O how I love your law! It is my meditation, my food and drink, all day, every day (Psalm 119:97).

I will meditate on your precepts and honor your ways in all I do and say (Psalm 119:15).

I am determined to lift my hands to your commandments, which I love; and I will meditate on your statutes (Psalm 119:48).

I look forward to the wee hours of the night because it provides me the space and the quiet to meditate on your word (Psalm 119:148).

In fact, I meditate on all your doings through both day and night; I ponder and consider the works of your hands (Psalm 143:5).

I pray through Jesus Christ your Son, my Lord, who with you and the Holy Spirit reign forever. Amen.

Matthew 19:16-22 – An Intervention by Jesus

Armenian Orthodox depiction of Jesus and the rich young man.

Just then a man came up to Jesus and asked, “Teacher, what good thing must I do to get eternal life?”

“Why do you ask me about what is good?” Jesus replied. “There is only One who is good. If you want to enter life, keep the commandments.”

“Which ones?” he inquired.

Jesus replied, “‘You shall not murder, you shall not commit adultery, you shall not steal, you shall not give false testimony, honor your father and mother,’ and ‘love your neighbor as yourself.’”

“All these I have kept,” the young man said. “What do I still lack?”

Jesus answered, “If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”

When the young man heard this, he went away sad, because he had great wealth. (NIV)

Sin is addictive. Since we are all sinners, we are therefore all addicts. We do not all struggle with the same sin but we all have some besetting sin(s) we must be weaned off of, whether it is what we typically think of as addiction (alcohol, substance abuse, smoking, pornography, gambling) or things we don’t readily notice as addictive (gossip, food, shopping, social media, Netflix). The most pervasive and addictive sin found in Holy Scripture is the addiction to wealth and money.

It would be easy to think of others rather than we ourselves when it comes to the topic of money. “I don’t have as much money as…” or, “So and so really has a problem with this…” perhaps betrays our own denial of having an inordinate concern with wealth. The truth be told, it is likely that all of us are in some sort of denial about how much we really trust in paychecks, bank accounts, and stuff. Even people who truly have little money and few resources can compulsively think about wealth and wish for riches to an unhealthy degree, as if possessing more is the thing that will make them happy.

Persons in denial rarely realize how much they are hurting others, themselves, and God. In fact, the consistent witness of the early church fathers is that the sheer accumulation of stuff is the same as stealing from the poor. The great preacher from antiquity, St. John Chrysostom, plainly declared:

“Not to share our own wealth with the poor is theft from the poor and deprivation of their means of life; we do not possess our own wealth, but theirs.”

Sometimes, because of denial, people need an intervention – to be jolted back to their senses. Intervention is a gift.  Someone cares enough to intervene. Yet, interventions do not always work. The person may walk away and refuse to see themselves as they are.

Jesus performed an intervention with a rich young man (literally, a twenty-something). The man was addicted to wealth and money, but he failed to see it. In fact, he thought of himself as godly and spiritual. It is a sad story because the man walked away untransformed by his encounter with Jesus and did not follow him.

Because of his riches, the young man did not see himself as hopeless and desperately needing to change, and so, held to his denial.

Today’s Gospel lesson is not merely an ancient story. It is our story, as well. Whereas I would get all excited about being asked a question like, “What good thing must I do to get eternal life?” and launch into proclaiming the good news, Jesus, however, immediately picked up on the attitude and thought behind the question. 

What must I do to get?  It is almost as if the man wants to acquire eternal life like he would acquire wealth.  “I am a successful businessman, and respected citizen,” the young man might have reasoned, “and now I want to be a success with God, as well.” However sincere the question may have been, it is misguided. Eternal life is not spiritual real estate for an upwardly mobile twenty-something to acquire and possess. It seems he believed he could purchase eternal life, as if everyone has their price, even God.

Jesus questioned the question by going after the underlying assumption that the man could do something good to obtain eternal life. He could not because only God is good. So, Jesus changed the action from getting to entering; and changed the language from a market acquisition to entering a journey. In short, Jesus was inviting the man to walk with him.

Eternal life is a journey of faith in the God who is good, and not a transaction to leverage obtaining what I want.

We must be careful to avoid the topic of eternal life as if it were a contractual arrangement, as if getting a person to sign on the dotted line through a “sinner’s prayer” or some other formula will seal the deal. Because life with God is a walk of obedience to divine commands.

The rich guy wanted to know which commands to obey. Jesus then quoted the second table of the Ten Commandments, the ones which focus on human relationships. Jesus wanted him to see that the entrance to God’s kingdom goes through and not around how we treat our fellow human beings.

Simple straightforward observance of commands has its limits; it cannot provide genuine life. The rich man seemed to be looking for some extraordinary command. After all, he could do it, no matter what the price was.  The man, in his materialistic worldview, was confused. “What resources could I possibly lack?” he wondered.  So, Jesus straight up told him: Sell everything. Give to the poor. Then, come, follow me.

The young twenty-something needed to shift how he thought about being godly. Jesus is a person, not a commodity one can simply add to a portfolio.

Jesus mercifully offered the man a new way of being, not doing.

Through the conversational back and forth, Jesus exposed the rich man’s divided loyalties of trying to serve both God and money. He would have to choose between the two. And, I will add, this is our choice, as well. The issue is not whether we are completely devoted to money, or not. The question is: Are we trying to serve God while maintaining a moonlighting job with the world? 

God wants an undivided heart with complete allegiance. Jesus is scouting for the poor in spirit, who recognize their great need for God – spiritual beggars who understand their desperate situation and do not sugar-coat their spiritual state.

Like an alcoholic who needs sobriety, or a sex addict who needs purity, or a workaholic who needs to stop and go home, the rich young man needed to give up his inordinate love for money and possessions. So, Jesus did an intervention. Keep in mind that Jesus did not ask every rich person to do exactly as he called this young man to do, i.e. Zacchaeus to give everything away, or for Peter to sell his fishing business.

We must face our own compulsions, obsessions, and addictions surrounding money and wealth. Perhaps the best way to grow our faith is to tell a trusted person that you compulsively work in order to feel better, or that you are afraid to give because you worry about the future, or that you love to buy things you don’t really need.

I also want to do a check-in with you right now. With your self-awareness regarding money and stuff, do you feel horrible about yourself?  Do you beat yourself up for screwing up and succumbing to the money master? Grace is the final word on everything. God has unlimited patience with us and never tires of inviting us to follow him. Praise the Lord that divine love and acceptance is not based on our screw-ups but on the cross of Christ.

Camels cannot pass through the eye of a needle through dieting, concentrating harder, or getting lucky. Yet, it can happen, not because the camel can squeeze through the narrowness of the needle’s eye but because there is a wideness in God’s mercy.

Grace will pull you through. And unlike the rich young man, once you hear and understand that piece of delightful news, you do not walk away sad. You bound away with eternal joy.

O Lord, giver of life and source of freedom, I know that all I have received is from your hand. You call us to be stewards of your abundance, the caretakers of all you have entrusted to us. Help us to always use your gifts wisely and teach us to share them generously. May our faithful stewardship bear witness to the love of Jesus Christ in our lives. Amen.

James 2:14-26 – Faith Works

What good is it, my brothers, and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save them? Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.

But someone will say, “You have faith; I have deeds.”

Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by my deeds. You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that—and shudder.

You foolish person, do you want evidence that faith without deeds is useless? Was not our father Abraham considered righteous for what he did when he offered his son Isaac on the altar? You see that his faith and his actions were working together, and his faith was made complete by what he did. And the scripture was fulfilled that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness,” and he was called God’s friend. You see that a person is considered righteous by what they do and not by faith alone.

In the same way, was not even Rahab the prostitute considered righteous for what she did when she gave lodging to the spies and sent them off in a different direction? As the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without deeds is dead. (NIV)

Genuine authentic faith is more than mere sentiment and head knowledge. Faith without works does not work. Strong robust faith is active and can withstand adversity.

The rhetorical questions the Apostle James asked were meant to awake his readers to the reality that true faith is always active. In other words, inactive faith is not really faith at all. In his letters to the churches, the Apostle Paul typically talked about the relationship between faith and works before a person converts to Christ, whereas the Apostle James emphasized the role of works after a profession of faith in Christ.

St. James was getting at the heart of how a believer in Jesus ought to live. And he did this by giving an illustration of the relationship between faith and works: If someone is in need and a person expresses a sentimental feeling, even if that feeling is sincere, without backing it up with action – the expression is merely an expression, nothing more. 

I once came home after a long day at work on a Valentine’s Day several years ago. I had picked up some flowers at a drive through flower shop. I walked into the door and handed my wife the flowers with an “I love you.”  Then, I sat down in a heap and turned on the television. My dear wife’s response was not so favorable to my sentimental overtures. I did not really put any thought or action behind Valentine’s Day, and she knew it. My words of “I love you” just did not sync with my actions. 

Just so you know, I redeemed myself the next year by winning a contest on a local radio station for a spouse’s best love note, and it got read on the air several times throughout the day for my lovely wife to hear. My commitment and actions were were nicely aligned so that when I said “I love you” at the end of that workday, there was no doubt about it.

Faith requires that actions sync with words. For example, when we say “I will pray for you” it needs to be more than an expression of concern – we need to spend the time and commitment it takes in praying for them.

Faith involves emotions yet ought not be limited by them. Faith can neither exist nor survive without deeds. Christian works are not an added extra to faith any more than breathing is an added extra to the body. Both faith and action is needed for the Christian life.

True faith is shown as the genuine article by how it acts in real life situations. Faith is more than a checklist of right beliefs to sign-off on, as if it were some fire insurance policy against hell. Frankly, as a Pastor, I have heard some pretty lame justifications over the decades for failing to help others, give to the poor, be involved in justice work, and just plain serve in the church, like, “I’m not wired that way,” “That’s not my gift,” “That’s what we pay you to do,” and the ever-prolific, “This church is not meeting my needs.”

Those in the habit of complaining without an intent to boots-on-the-ground helping do not yet have an active faith. Each person is to do their part in serving the common good of all. And we all suffer when that does not happen. Bifurcating faith and action leave us with a false faith. 

If faith without action is okay, then so is the entire demonic realm. The glimpses of Satan we get in the Bible leads me to think that the devil has the entire thing memorized and knows it well from Genesis to Revelation. Yet, knowledge puffs up but love builds up. Information by itself is useless unless it is accompanied by gracious and loving action. (1 Corinthians 8:1)

Salvation is a term Christians are familiar with. In the Christian tradition, it refers to being saved from sin, death, and hell. Sanctification is another term most Christians recognize. It means “to become holy,” or, “to be set apart” for God. Sanctification is not an event but a process. Whereas saving faith is a gift given without works, sanctifying faith requires a great deal of effort. A lot of energy is expended to live the Christian life. The late Dallas Willard used to often say, “Grace is not opposed to effort, it is opposed to earning. Earning is an attitude. Effort is an action.” 

The Apostle James dealt primarily with the sanctifying faith every Christian needs to exhibit. It is as if we have been graciously granted a full-ride scholarship to a university (salvation) but now the real work begins (sanctification) to learn, grow, and obtain the degree. And, just as a student will surely become discouraged at some point throughout their education and wonder if they ought to drop out, so the Christian will face tremendous adversity and challenge. Indeed, a lot of blood-sweat-and-tears goes into our spiritual studies so that our faith will be strengthened for a lifetime of active loving service.

For example, the Old Testament character Abraham was saved from an empty way of life in a pagan country and given a gift of grace to move to the country God would show him. Abraham did nothing to earn this favor.  God just chose him (Joshua 24:2-3). Abraham sojourned as a pilgrim throughout the land God gave him, which mirrored his spiritual sojourning and learning to be a follower of God. Abraham faced a monumental test of faith when asked to sacrifice his son Isaac (Genesis 22:1-19).

Abraham’s faith was made complete by what he did. Testing of faith is necessary so that we become mature and complete, not lacking anything (James 1:3-4). The way for authentic faith to develop and grow is in the fiery trial of adversity and hardship. Spiritual maturation, holiness, and a well-rounded faith come by means of difficult life circumstances.

Rahab and the Two Spies by Unknown artist

To press the significance of faith and works, the example of the Old Testament character Rahab is highlighted. Rahab was a prostitute who lived in the red-light district of Jericho. St. James was doing something profound and important – he took two extreme examples, one a giant of the faith, and the other an almost overlooked example of faith, to demonstrate we all are candidates for real faith.

Rahab’s faith and actions worked harmoniously. She genuinely believed the city of Jericho was going to be overcome by God’s judgment, and, so, she housed the visiting Israelite spies (Joshua 2:1-11). Methinks we must expand our understanding of faith to include persons others might exclude. Some may be quick to judge those with dubious lives and backgrounds, as well as the poor and needy. The bald fact of the matter is that we cannot sanitize Rahab as something other than what she was – and because of her faith she ended up being an ancestor of Jesus himself (Matthew 1:5).

From the standpoint of faith, Abraham and Rahab are on the same level. In Christ’s new egalitarian society, all are welcome, all are equal. Together, we work on our sanctifying faith by submitting to adversity as our teacher; finding solace in God’s Holy Word and Spirit; praying for and with others; worshiping God like there is no tomorrow; leaning into faithful relationships; keeping our eyes open to what God is doing; being patient with the process of sanctification; and embracing unwanted change as our friend.

Faith works, my young Padawan. Embrace it. Enjoy it. Energize it.

John 5:39-47 – Against Vainglory

Christ and Pharisee by Russian artist Ivan Filichev, 1993

“You have your heads in your Bibles constantly because you think you’ll find eternal life there. But you miss the forest for the trees. These Scriptures are all about me! And here I am, standing right before you, and you aren’t willing to receive from me the life you say you want.

“I’m not interested in crowd approval. And do you know why? Because I know you and your crowds. I know that love, especially God’s love, is not on your working agenda. I came with the authority of my Father, and you either dismiss me or avoid me. If another came, acting self-important, you would welcome him with open arms. How do you expect to get anywhere with God when you spend all your time jockeying for position with each other, ranking your rivals and ignoring God?

“But don’t think I’m going to accuse you before my Father. Moses, in whom you put so much stock, is your accuser. If you believed, really believed, what Moses said, you would believe me. He wrote of me. If you won’t take seriously what he wrote, how can I expect you to take seriously what I speak?” (MSG)

I like kids, even Junior High kids. They have not yet learned how to mask their honesty (like Senior High kids). Have a conversation with any early adolescent (other than your own kid) and you will likely get an unfiltered and unvarnished take on whatever topic you are discussing together. If the subject of celebrities comes up, they can quickly rattle off their favorites. There is a reason for that; they are very much in touch with wanting to be impressive, to stand out, even to be famous someday.

I have long contended that if you want to gauge a society’s true values, talk to a young adolescent. They just happen to have an emerging awareness of the world but not yet the sophistication to hide their true thoughts from others. Junior High age kids pretty much reflect what most adults are thinking but would never dare say out loud. After all, why lose prestige in the eyes of others who think I am wonderful? Better not to rock the boat, we reason.

“Vainglory” is an old out-of-style word which few people use anymore, yet perfectly captures exactly what Jesus was talking about when it came to people being unable to discern his divinity. Wherever and whenever you find an inordinate focus on wanting attention, seeking to impress others, and desiring celebrity status, there you will see vainglory digging its talons into a society.

Vainglory is just what it sounds like: an almost narcissistic self-absorption into one’s need for importance and attention so that the personal vanity blocks being able to see others right in front of them. In placing so much energy into becoming a celebrity among peers, the vainglorious person’s vanity fogs them from reality and the truth of another.

Conversely, we are to seek the glory which comes from God. Since so many are programmed to seek honor from others, it can be quite the undertaking to turn the hunt into finding our identity and fame as persons in the image of God. Our Gospel lesson today says our reorientation program begins with faith in Jesus Christ. It is the first step toward the unmasking of egomania and soliciting God’s favor.

The sixteenth-century Reformer, John Calvin, said that “a person is only prepared to obey the heavenly teaching when he is convinced that the chief thing to be sought in all of life is God’s approval.”

Thus, the appropriate response to vainglory is to fly like a bat of hell to the heavenly mercy of God. There is no shame in wanting honor; its just a matter of where we go looking for it. Faith is crippled when we keep trying to discern which way the wind is blowing. Both our identity and our sanity will eventually blow away. However, if we cease prioritizing worldly recognition and cancel our membership in the mutual admiration club, then our conscience clears enough to let divine grace fill our souls with the love of God in Christ.

Give me Jesus and that will be enough, thank you very much. As for recognition and attention, to be adored by the Savior is all I really need. Because at the end of the day, after the hurt of being ignored, overlooked, and forgotten, Jesus is standing at the door knocking, eager to come into the house and grace me with the gift of acceptance, approval, and admiration.

O Lord, in the name of Jesus Christ your Son our God, give me the love which never ceases, that will light my soul with divine grace so that I might be satisfied in you and lessen the darkness of the world. Lord Jesus, I seek your presence and glory. May I see you, desire you, look on you in love, and long after you, for your sake. Amen.