Jeremiah 31:7-14 – A Restored People

Now this is what the Lord says:
“Sing with joy for Israel.
    Shout for the greatest of nations!
Shout out with praise and joy:
‘Save your people, O Lord,
    the remnant of Israel!’
For I will bring them from the north
    and from the distant corners of the earth.
I will not forget the blind and lame,
    the expectant mothers and women in labor.
    A great company will return!
Tears of joy will stream down their faces,
    and I will lead them home with great care.
They will walk beside quiet streams
    and on smooth paths where they will not stumble.
For I am Israel’s father,
    and Ephraim is my oldest child.

“Listen to this message from the Lord,
    you nations of the world;
    proclaim it in distant coastlands:
The Lord, who scattered his people,
    will gather them and watch over them
    as a shepherd does his flock.
For the Lord has redeemed Israel
    from those too strong for them.
They will come home and sing songs of joy on the heights of Jerusalem.
    They will be radiant because of the Lord’s good gifts—
the abundant crops of grain, new wine, and olive oil,
    and the healthy flocks and herds.
Their life will be like a watered garden,
    and all their sorrows will be gone.
The young women will dance for joy,
    and the men—old and young—will join in the celebration.
I will turn their mourning into joy.
    I will comfort them and exchange their sorrow for rejoicing.
The priests will enjoy abundance,
    and my people will feast on my good gifts.
    I, the Lord, have spoken!” (New Living Translation)

Experiencing restoration is a beautiful thing. Sick and suffering bodies restored to health brings rejoicing. Estranged relationships brought together again elicits singing. Spirits broken by sin made whole again through restoring grace causes shouts of joy.

God is an expert in restoration. Dilapidated communities, broken individuals, and peoples in diaspora can find fresh hope amid challenging circumstances.

Take a look at the actions of God through the verbs in today’s Old Testament lesson:

  • “I will bring.” The Lord gathers scattered people together, as well as making the disparate parts of people into a unified whole again.
  • “I will not forget.” In the gathering action of God, no one is left behind. Attention is given to the stragglers, to those unable on their own strength or ability to journey on the road back to the Lord.
  • “I will turn.” The unfortunate are turned into the fortunate. The underprivileged become privileged. Grief, lament, and mourning give way to joy and a new lease on life.
  • “I will comfort.” A great reversal occurs with God’s intervention. Sorrow is transformed into praise. Goodness is found in abundance because the Lord is a good God.

God calls the people to action, to a response of experiencing the restorative powers of grace. The Lord encourages such behavior because it helps us never forget that no one and no circumstance is ever beyond the renewing grace of God. Notice the verbs which characterize that response:

  • “Sing.” No mumbling here, my friends. No timidity about being off tune. A lonely person, fragmented group, depressed community, polarized neighborhood, or scattered nation restored by God’s merciful grace becomes an exuberant people. Singing organically arises from them.
  • “Shout.” Even the rocks will cry out if the people don’t. A last second win in the sports stadium amongst thousands of fans doesn’t even hold a candle to celebrative shouts of believers gathered and restored.
  • “Listen.” Whenever hearing God’s voice results in restoration, then the desire and motivation to listen increases exponentially.
  • “Proclaim.” Proclaiming good news is a joy and privilege. And in anticipation of Epiphany, the gospel declared to Gentiles is a gracious message of inclusion and hope.

We are helped to picture the incredible restoration of people coming together and gathered by God with two metaphors:

  1. The Good Shepherd. Like a faithful shepherd over the flock of sheep, the Lord actively seeks the lost, brings them home, and continues to stand watch over them as a compassionate guardian.
  2. The Exodus. Just as God redeemed the people out of Egyptian slavery and took them to a good land of abundance, so the Lord shall return those persons exiled from that abundant place and restore them to the peace of settled rest.

The restoring action of God gathers the scattered. The lost are found. That which is fragmented is made whole. Those previously disabled become able. The weak become strong, the sick healed, the hungry fed, and the prisoner freed.

In times of famine, pandemic, poverty, hardship, and scant resources, there is hope. The Lord knows how to restore fortunes and bring untold abundance amid the most difficult of situations.

True joy comes through hard suffering. The pains of childbirth give way to unspeakable joy.

Today is the final day in the twelve days of the Christmas season. God, entering humanity through a woman, in the flesh, began the gracious work of ransoming, redeeming, and restoring a sinful world that had exiled itself from peace and abundance. In Christ, our lives are full of blessing.

Praise the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ for the spiritual blessings that Christ has brought us from heaven! (Ephesians 1:3, CEV)

“I am the gate. Those who come in by me will be saved; they will come in and go out and find pasture. The thief comes only in order to steal, kill, and destroy. I have come in order that you might have life—life in all its fullness. I am the good shepherd, who is willing to die for the sheep.” (John 10:9-11, GNT)

May you know and experience the restorative grace of God in Christ today and every day. Amen.

Acts 7:44-53 – Don’t Be a Church Curmudgeon

Muppets Statler and Waldorf

“Our ancestors carried the Tabernacle with them through the wilderness. It was constructed according to the plan God had shown to Moses. Years later, when Joshua led our ancestors in battle against the nations that God drove out of this land, the Tabernacle was taken with them into their new territory. And it stayed there until the time of King David.

“David found favor with God and asked for the privilege of building a permanent Temple for the God of Jacob. But it was Solomon who actually built it.However, the Most High doesn’t live in temples made by human hands. As the prophet says,

‘Heaven is my throne,
    and the earth is my footstool.
Could you build me a temple as good as that?’
    asks the Lord.
‘Could you build me such a resting place?
    Didn’t my hands make both heaven and earth?’

“You stubborn people! You are heathen at heart and deaf to the truth. Must you forever resist the Holy Spirit? That’s what your ancestors did, and so do you! Name one prophet your ancestors didn’t persecute! They even killed the ones who predicted the coming of the Righteous One—the Messiah whom you betrayed and murdered. You deliberately disobeyed God’s law, even though you received it from the hands of angels.” (New Living Translation)

On this eleventh day in the twelve days of the Christmas season, perhaps there are people who have moved on from the yearly celebration to daily complaints. 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 cranky old church curmudgeon.

It seems like some believers have been baptized in pickle juice. They have something negative to say about everything. And even when they acknowledge they don’t really understand something, they’ll still give a stony faced retort of “I’m against it.”

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. Then, like a stubborn old mule, we just sit down and don’t budge.

Like the ancient Israelites for whom Stephen railed against in our New Testament lesson for today, we might become hard-headed, and inflexible. We get lost in doing things our own 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. Ironically, those who speak and act in the name of the Lord are resisting him.

“Pettiness of mind, ignorance and presumption are the cause of stubbornness, because stubborn people only want to believe what they themselves can imagine, and they can imagine very few things.”

Madeleine de Souvre

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 delusional world. 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?

Quit digging your heals in.

Let go of your illusions of power and privilege. Walking around like you’re King Lactose the Intolerant only looks weird and causes too many trips to the bathroom.

Submit afresh to the Lord for whom we must bow in all things. If we can do that, then we are well on our way to seeing the only true God in all his immensity. Humble ourselves under the mighty hand of God and set aside self-righteous pride so that he may exalt and honor us at the appropriate time of his choosing, not ours (1 Peter 5:6).

Take up our holy calling as Christ’s ambassadors, having become new people and knowing the reconciling power of the cross, through the proper spiritual tools of faith, hope, and love (2 Corinthians 5:17-21; 1 Corinthians 13).

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

  • Stretch. If we are rarely or never in positions which work our faith, then that faith will diminish and eventually atrophy. Faith is not static, but dynamic. It needs to be worked ands stretched. And your face won’t break if you crack a smile now and then.
  • Breathe. 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.”
  • Relax. A hyperextended faith will not support extreme positions which alienate people and put God to the test. Some folks just need to get off their high horse before God knocks them off. Nobody is helped by another’s forced beliefs.
  • Move. 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. Two ears. One mouth. Get the clue. Many people would be better served if they would just listen rather than incessantly talking. Behind all the bluster is typically an issue of wanting the kind of control God possesses.

To do the will of God, we must have a growing awareness and knowledge of a big unlimited God, and a small, limited self. This will take loosening up on the stubbornness 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 72 – Justice and Righteousness

Give the king your justice, O God,
    and your righteousness to a king’s son.
May he judge your people with righteousness,
    and your poor with justice.
May the mountains yield prosperity for the people,
    and the hills, in righteousness.
May he defend the cause of the poor of the people,
    give deliverance to the needy,
    and crush the oppressor.

May he live while the sun endures,
    and as long as the moon, throughout all generations.
May he be like rain that falls on the mown grass,
    like showers that water the earth.
In his days may righteousness flourish
    and peace abound, until the moon is no more.

May he have dominion from sea to sea,
    and from the River to the ends of the earth.
May his foes bow down before him,
    and his enemies lick the dust.
May the kings of Tarshish and of the isles
    render him tribute,
may the kings of Sheba and Seba
    bring gifts.
May all kings fall down before him,
    all nations give him service.

For he delivers the needy when they call,
    the poor and those who have no helper.
He has pity on the weak and the needy,
    and saves the lives of the needy.
From oppression and violence he redeems their life;
    and precious is their blood in his sight.

Long may he live!
    May gold of Sheba be given to him.
May prayer be made for him continually,
    and blessings invoked for him all day long.
May there be abundance of grain in the land;
    may it wave on the tops of the mountains;
    may its fruit be like Lebanon;
and may people blossom in the cities
    like the grass of the field.
May his name endure forever,
    his fame continue as long as the sun.
May all nations be blessed in him;
    may they pronounce him happy.

Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel,
    who alone does wondrous things.
Blessed be his glorious name forever;
    may his glory fill the whole earth.
Amen and Amen.

The prayers of David son of Jesse are ended. (New Revised Standard Version)

Today’s psalm is a prayer of King David – beseeching the Lord to help him rule with justice and righteousness – because G-d is just and right in all divine dealings with humanity.

“Justice” in the Old Testament is neither fairness nor the good being rewarded and the wicked punished. Rather, justice (Hebrew משפט, pronounced “mish-pot”) in its most basic sense is caring for the poor. A society is “just” to the degree in which every person has enough for the basic necessities of life and is lifted up as persons worthy of care and respect.

So, the way in which David measured his kingly rule was not by how big of an army he had, or how much gold there was in the royal treasury. Rather, a successful rule for David was measured by whether the interests of the poor were defended and provided for.  

A similar word to justice, “righteousness,” is neither some sort of smug godliness nor a sense of superior piety. Instead, righteousness (Hebrew צדקה pronounced “zed-a-ka”) is a relational term of being in sync with G-d and G-d’s ways. It works itself out in a philanthropic spirit of giving what is needed – both physically and spiritually – through acts of mercy such as forgiveness, debt relief, friendship, charity, etc.

Together, justice and righteousness are concerned for giving needed resources with a compassionate spirit of relationship. It seeks to meet the holistic needs of underprivileged people.

Psalm 72 is read in this Christian liturgical season of Christmas (December 25-January 5) because the celebration of the Christ child entering humanity gives great hope for the poor, the needy, the indigent, and all those who struggle to daily survive grinding situations of hardship and adversity.

This is why, when Jesus announced his earthly ministry, he made it clear the nature of that work would be upholding and extending justice and righteousness:

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
    because he has anointed me
        to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
    and recovery of sight to the blind,
        to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” (Luke 4:18-19, NRSV)

The least, the lost, the lonely, and the lame have a champion – a Divine Advocate who will take up their cause and ensure they are treated as deserving human beings, with adequate care of both body and soul. Done properly, our living a just and right life requires we share compassion and empathy along with the monetary and physical resources.

“Whoever gives justice to the poor with a sour expression and in a surly manner, even if he gives a thousand gold pieces, loses his merit. One should instead give cheerfully and joyfully and empathize with him in his sorrow.”

Maimonides (1138-1204, C.E.)

Both the hand and the heart are always involved in biblical justice and righteousness. That way both the giver and the recipient benefit. Whereas the poor receive money or other material assistance, the donor receives the merit of sharing in G-d’s work.

So then, righteousness and justice involve giving assistance with the hand as well as encouragement with the mouth so that needs are met with no residual bitterness of heart.

Each of you should give what you have decided in your heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver. And God is able to bless you abundantly, so that in all things at all times, having all that you need, you will abound in every good work. As it is written:

“They have freely scattered their gifts to the poor;
    their righteousness endures forever.” (2 Corinthians 9:7-9, NIV)

May you know the joy and celebration of both giving and receiving with a grateful heart, attuned to the blessings of a generous G-d who stands behind it all.

Psalm 148 – Praise the Lord!

Praise the Lord!

Praise the Lord from heaven!
    Praise God on the heights!
Praise God, all of you who are his messengers!
    Praise God, all of you who comprise his heavenly forces!
Sun and moon, praise God!
    All of you bright stars, praise God!
You highest heaven, praise God!
    Do the same, you waters that are above the sky!
Let all of these praise the Lord’s name
    because God gave the command and they were created!
God set them in place always and forever.
    God made a law that will not be broken.

Praise the Lord from the earth,
    you sea monsters and all you ocean depths!
Do the same, fire and hail, snow and smoke,
    stormy wind that does what God says!
Do the same, you mountains, every single hill,
    fruit trees, and every single cedar!
Do the same, you animals—wild or tame—
    you creatures that creep along and you birds that fly!
Do the same, you kings of the earth and every single person,
    you princes and every single ruler on earth!
Do the same, you young men—young women too!—
    you who are old together with you who are young!

Let all of these praise the Lord’s name
    because only God’s name is high over all.
    Only God’s majesty is over earth and heaven.
God raised the strength of his people,
    the praise of all his faithful ones—
        that’s the Israelites,
        the people who are close to him.

Praise the Lord! (Common English Bible)

This is the Christmas season. We are in the third day of the twelve days of Christmas. This time on the Church Calendar gives focus to declare, along with the angels and all of God’s creation, Glory to God in the highest! Praise the Lord! 

Everything in all creation points to a Creator who cares for us. These days between December 25 and January 5 are to be a great celebration because King Jesus has come and is the rightful Sovereign over all creation. We are meant to grasp the meaning of Christ’s incarnation – affirming the identity of Jesus as both full human and fully divine. 

Beginning with Christ’s birth, we enter a reflection on the meaning of Christ’s life and prepare for the journey toward the cross and the empty tomb.

Today, however, we simply praise the Lord along with all creation – which is what the psalmist calls us to do.  The entire universe is called to praise the Lord. Everything points to a God who is worthy to be praised.

Let’s assume the distance between the earth and the sun (92 million miles) was reduced to the thickness of a sheet of paper. If that’s the case, then the distance between the earth and the nearest star would be a stack of papers 70 feet high. And the diameter of the galaxy would be a stack of papers 310 miles high. Our galaxy is just a speck of dust in the universe, yet Jesus holds the universe together by the word of his power.

We serve a big God who is worthy to be praised, not only out there in the universe but here on earth. The psalmist calls the earth to echo the adoration of God – fish, animals, birds, even trees, as well as people. Indeed, even the rocks will cry out if people fail to.

Research in the field of bioacoustics has revealed that every day we are surrounded by millions of ultrasonic songs. For example, the electron shell of the carbon atom produces the same harmonic scale as a Gregorian chant. Whale songs can travel thousands of miles underwater. Meadowlarks have a range of three hundred notes. Supersensitive sound instruments have discovered that even earthworms make faint staccato sounds!

Arnold Summerfield, a German physicist, and pianist observed that a single hydrogen atom, which emits one hundred frequencies, is more musical than a grand piano, which only emits eighty-eight frequencies.

“If we had better hearing, and could discern the singing of sea birds, the rhythmic drumming of schools of mollusks, or even the distant harmonics of flies hanging over meadows in the sun, the combined sound might lift us off our feet.”

Lewis Thomas

Praise the Lord. We have a vision in today’s psalm of all creation praising God as one great big choir. Praise is to occur with both words and actions. With words, praise is an expression of gratitude for God’s attributes.  With actions, praise is a posture of submission and an acknowledgement of dependence. Therefore, through testimony, we declare what God has done in our lives and how the Lord is worthy to be praised and obeyed.

With an emphasis on praise in a season dedicated to joy, it is compassionate to also recognize that for many people Christmas is difficult.  Loneliness, thin finances, unemployment, illness, strained relationships, and bittersweet memories can all be a discouraging contrast to the celebration going on around them.

Praise, however, is not just for the joyful; it can happen no matter the circumstances because the Christian’s happiness is not dependent upon positive situations but rather upon the person and work of Jesus. It may not be easy to find our voice of praise along with everyone else, but we are not alone. We can choose to join with all creation to praise the name of the Lord. 

One woman shared this during a Christmas season, six weeks after a spine surgery:

“I am thankful for a chance to get out of the house. Of course, my walker was with me.  I am amazed how quickly folks move over, slow down, and give me space when I am out with that thing….  At church it feels like I am parting the Red Sea! The reason I hate the walker is because it says to the whole world, ‘Hey, I’m broken!’  I realize we all have areas that we are broken, most of them we can hide or cover up. Why are we so ashamed to confess the truth? Who really has it all together? I know we love our privacy and shun pity. However, I have been shown so much grace, kindness, and compassion as I push this piece of aluminum around that I hope this experience continues to change me for the better. I hope in the future I will be sensitive to those who are broken on the inside as well as the outside. May the love of Christ give me eyes to see people as he does, precious and accepted, just as they are.”

That, my friends, is the reasonable and logical end of praising the Lord – to connect what God has done and is doing with what God can do through us with praise. By simply being who we are created to be, we praise the Lord along with all creation. When people in God’s image, reflect that image in how we talk and how we live, we participate with the universe in declaring God is good. 

Praise is the glue that binds us together. Let us praise the name of the Lord.

Let the church praise the Lord! 

Let leaders everywhere praise the Lord! 

Let healthcare workers and first responders praise the Lord! 

Let salespersons and factory workers praise the Lord!  

Let law enforcement, lawyers, and judges praise the Lord!

Let the trees, mountains, and all living things praise the Lord!  

Let engineers and educators praise the Lord!  

Let the little children praise the Lord! 

Let clerks and cashiers, waiters and waitresses, janitors and housekeepers praise the Lord! 

Let the lost and the lonely praise the Lord along with the happy and satisfied!

Let everything that has breath praise the Lord!

Whether you are bursting to proclaim it, or struggle to say it and live it, praise the Lord along with everything in the universe because we serve a God who keeps us close to heart.

So, what do you have to praise the Lord for today? How do you express your praise, both personally and publicly? Where is your favorite place to praise the Lord? When does praise to God come easily for you, and when it is difficult? Who do you like praising the Lord with?

May your life become an embodiment of praise to the God who is worthy to receive all glory, honor, and praise. Amen.