Psalm 36:5-10 – Steadfast Love

Your steadfast love, O Lord, extends to the heavens,
    your faithfulness to the clouds.
Your righteousness is like the mighty mountains,
    your judgments are like the great deep;
    you save humans and animals alike, O Lord.

How precious is your steadfast love, O God!
    All people may take refuge in the shadow of your wings.
They feast on the abundance of your house,
    and you give them drink from the river of your delights.
For with you is the fountain of life;
    in your light we see light.

O continue your steadfast love to those who know you,
    and your salvation to the upright of heart! (New Revised Standard Version)

Love suffers. Every parent knows this. Because of a parent’s committed and faithful love toward a child, they feel not only the joys but also the sorrows and pain of their children. I can say that this feeling does not go away, even with adult children. And it is compounded with grandchildren. Just as our love is big enough to hold multiple children and grandchildren, so our capacity for experiencing deep emotion for their welfare is equally large.

True love is sacrificial. It is willing to suffer anything on behalf of the beloved. God’s steadfast love is immensely large, holding both the joy of witnessing our lives as well as the pain of watching us make unhealthy decisions which damage us and each other.

God’s people, walking in the way of love, quickly discover that it is simultaneously walking in the way of suffering. From Old Testament times through the New Testament and into the present day, the faithful have always experienced suffering as a central part of their piety and devotion in showing steadfast love. 

The medieval mystics of the Church understood well the connection between suffering and love. They could not imagine a Christian life without hardship, difficulty, and persecution. Thomas à Kempis, a sort of pastor to pastors, wrote in the fifteenth century these words:

“Sometimes it is to our advantage to endure misfortunes and adversities, for they make us enter into our inner selves and acknowledge that we are in a place of exile and that we ought not to rely on anything in this world.  And sometimes it is good for us to suffer contradictions and know that there are those who think ill and badly of us, even though we do our best and act with every good intention….  When men ridicule and belittle us, we should turn to God, who sees our innermost thoughts, and seek His judgment….  It is when a man of good will is distressed, or tempted, or afflicted with evil that he best understands the overwhelming need he has for God, without whom he can do nothing….  It is in such times of trial that he realizes that perfect security and full peace are not to be found in this world.”

Thomas à Kempis, The Imitation of Christ

And yet, it is because of love that suffering is transformed and endured as something wholly other than sheer pain or hurt. Thomas à Kempis went on to say:

“Love is a mighty power, a great and complete good; Love alone lightens every burden and makes the rough places smooth. It bears every hardship as though it were nothing and renders all bitterness sweet and acceptable. The love of Jesus is noble and inspires us to great deeds; it moves us always to desire perfection. Love aspires to high things and is held back by nothing base. Love longs to be free, a stranger to every worldly desire, lest its inner vision become dimmed, and lest worldly self-interest hinder it, or ill-fortune cast it down…. Love knows no limits, but ardently transcends all bounds. Love feels no burden, takes no account of toil, attempts things beyond its strength; love sees nothing as impossible, for it feels able to achieve all things. Love therefore does great things; it is strange and effective; while he who lacks love faints and fails.”

Thomas à Kempis, The Imitation of Christ

In this season of Epiphany, we remember that Jesus is the light of the world. God became flesh and blood to experience the full range of the human condition – both joys and sorrows in a love so committed to us that it led to a cruel cross of suffering.

Salvation has come to all peoples because of God’s steadfast love – a love that never lets go no matter the circumstances.

Almighty God, whose Son our Savior Jesus Christ is the light of the world: Grant that your people, illumined by your Word and Sacrament, may shine with the radiance of Christ’s glory, that he may be known, worshiped, and obeyed to the ends of the earth; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns, one God, now and forever. Amen.

Ephesians 4:17-5:1 – Living into Truth

“I am the way, the truth, and the life.” –Jesus (John 14:6)

So, I tell you this, and insist on it in the Lord, that you must no longer live as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their thinking. They are darkened in their understanding and separated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them due to the hardening of their hearts. Having lost all sensitivity, they have given themselves over to sensuality so as to indulge in every kind of impurity, and they are full of greed.

That, however, is not the way of life you learned when you heard about Christ and were taught in him in accordance with the truth that is in Jesus. You were taught, with regard to your former way of life, to put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires; to be made new in the attitude of your minds; and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness.

Therefore, each of you must put off falsehood and speak truthfully to your neighbor, for we are all members of one body. “In your anger do not sin”: Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry, and do not give the devil a foothold. Anyone who has been stealing must steal no longer, but must work, doing something useful with their own hands, that they may have something to share with those in need.

Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen. And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with whom you were sealed for the day of redemption. Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice. Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you. Follow God’s example, therefore, as dearly loved children. (New International Version)

Where is truth?

Truth is ultimately not found in a system. It is supremely discovered in a person. At the beginning of this Christian Epiphany season, we are reminded that Christ embodied truth. “I am the truth,” Jesus said. (John 14:6)

Jesus modeled a life of truth. He lived and spoke in love. He had a handle on the appropriate use of anger. He never evidenced a wagging gossipy slanderous tongue. There was no bitterness in his heart. He forgave others and was consistently compassionate.

Following Jesus in this way of life can often be difficult and challenging. Why, despite knowing better, do we have such a doggone hard time following Christ’s example of holy speech, pure words, and radical forgiveness?

If there was a simple answer/solution to the acerbic tongues of others, it would be easy to avoid using our words like a hot knife through butter, toasting others with subtle digs and cranky words. Simply telling ourselves (or others) to stop their bellyaching is only a manifestation of our own belligerent spirit running amok.

Gentle words are a tree of life;
    a deceitful tongue crushes the spirit.

Proverbs 15:4, NLT

Rather, we need a solid practical approach to those nagging white lies we keep putting out there and the bending of truth to suit our own selfish purposes. Neither sheer willpower nor hackneyed homebrewed prescriptions will get the job done.

When we go to the doctor, we want them to be honest with us about our true condition and health.  If we have a clean bill of health, we are glad for that truth.  If, however, we have something wrong, we want to know what it is and how to deal with it. Doctors who avoid the truth so to not make us feel bad or hurt our feelings are performing malpractice, not healing. We need a solid diagnosis and prognosis framed in a caring way. Trying to grow spiritually without hearing the truth about ourselves from a spiritual doctor is like trying to do heart surgery on yourself.

The truth will set us free. Yet, it will make us uncomfortable. We all have a real need to hear the truth spoken in love and to wrap our heads and hearts around it. This can only happen if we are open, honest, and real with each other. We are to stop being dishonest, and start being truthful.

What is truth? 

The Christian tradition teaches that Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life. Life together is shaped around the person and work of Christ. Since Christians share a common confession of Jesus, we are to share a common life together. That life revolves around the truth of Jesus.

As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience.

Colossians 3:12, NRSV

Therefore, we will put off non-Christian ways of relating to each other and put on a Christian way of relating to each other. We will speak truthfully because we belong to each other. Just as Jesus closely identified with us in his life, death, and resurrection, so we are to so closely identify with each other so that we take responsibility for each other. My problems are your problems – your issues are my issues. This is a stance of connection, not division.

We are to put off lying and put on truth. Too often, we are in the habit of pretending and being plastic. Acting as if we are okay when we are not, or even pretending life is hard, when it is not, is an untruthful presentation – it is a lie. Secrecy and deception are tools of Satan, not God. Therefore, we must put off the bad habit of pretention, and put on the good habit of speaking truthfully to each other. 

Why don’t we speak truth? 

Habits of lying come from the enemy of our souls who whispers in our ears that being truthful and transparent is too traumatic – we can’t do it. Buying into that snake oil thinking believes we cannot be open, honest, real, vulnerable, and genuine because it’s not worth the risk.

We might become convinced we’ll be rejected, lose face with others, or be a victim of gossip. Shame then takes the steering wheel instead of speaking truthfully to one another. So, we avoid the truth and, so, end up avoiding others.

Why are we to speak truth? 

Because we are responsible to one another. We are not meant to hide in the shadows but to step into the light and forsake all fakery and be truthful. When Ananias and Sapphira lied to the Apostle Peter, they were judged severely because they betrayed the community (Acts 5:1-11). Lying undermines and erodes true community.

How do we speak truth? 

We speak truthfully by making and keeping promises to each other. That is what God does with us. Communities which love truth will make a safe place for the awkwardness of confession, forgiveness, and healing. There is assurance that members will not abandon one another as they reveal their sins and weaknesses and fumble forward toward maturity and holiness.

Truthful communities are sacred spaces of encouragement and hospitality where we are safe to be real. No one should ever have to suffer in silence, cry alone, or wonder whether they will be forsaken. We must have a refreshing openness with each other since we belong to one another. 

“Yes, somewhere people still make and keep promises. They choose not to quit when the going gets rough because they promised once to see it through. They stick to lost causes. They hold on to a love grown cold. They stay with people who have become pains in the neck. They still dare to make promises and care enough to keep the promises they make. I want to say to you that if you have a ship you will not desert, if you have people you will not forsake, if you have causes you will not abandon, then you are like God. What a marvelous thing a promise is! When a person makes a promise, she reaches out into an unpredictable future and makes one thing predictable: she will be there even when being there costs her more than she wants to pay. When a person makes a promise, he stretches himself out into circumstances that no one can control and controls at least one thing: he will be there no matter what the circumstances turn out to be. With one simple word of promise, a person creates an island of certainty in a sea of uncertainty.”

Lewis Smedes, The Power of Promises

Where do we go from here with truth?

I harbor no delusions: Being transparent and real is scary. Yet, if we are to be the true humanity we are designed to be by our Creator, we will speak truthfully and not put up a false front.  We will neither hide nor hurl.  We will neither pretend everything is okay when it is not, nor project our problems onto others using untruthful accusations. We will do the hard work of learning to communicate by speaking the truth in love. 

There are two tendencies that may plague us going forward: complacency and mediocrity.

When it comes to relationships, we are too easily satisfied with a minimum amount of effort, words, and commitment. We need to make and keep promises to God and to each other; live into our baptisms; and renew our covenant of care and commitment to each other.  This means we will allow God to invade our hearts; we will let our mouths say what needs to be said; and be open enough to let others in. 

Though there are many of us, we are one body in Christ, and individually we belong to each other.

Romans 12:5, CEB

Some folks have putrid spiritual abscesses from either hiding the truth or hurling truth without love. Spiritual healing comes through spiritual surgery. God the Father sent God the Son to die on a cruel cross for all our unhealthy ways of relating to each other – and together sent God the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Truth, to form a new community of believers around truth.

Putting off and putting on – that is the prescription for realizing truthful speech and life. It is not easy. It’s hard as hell. And it takes us all as a human community to do it. Sometimes things are messy before there can be order and peace. That is the price of authenticity and truth – and that’s okay.

Creator of all that is good and true, help me so to put aside falsehood and put on truthful living and speaking that love and compassion shine in and through me to the glory of Jesus Christ, your Son, my Savior, who with you and the Holy Spirit live and reign forever together in a Holy Trinity of Truth. Amen.

Matthew 2:1-12 – Epiphany of the Lord

The Three Wise Men by He Qi

In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising and have come to pay him homage.” When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet:

‘And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
    are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for from you shall come a ruler
    who is to shepherd my people Israel.’”

Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.” When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road. (New Revised Standard Version)

“Truth, by which the world is held together, has sprung from the earth, in order to be carried in a woman’s arms.”

St. Augustine

Each year on January 6 in the Church Calendar, after the twelve days of Christmas, is the celebration of Epiphany. Christ’s coming to this earth as a child and becoming like us is much more than a baby in a manger.  Epiphany helps to bring a vision and understanding of God’s glory to all kinds of people of the world.

Epiphany means “manifestation” or “appearance.”

The event associated with this season is the visit of the Magi to Jesus. The season of Epiphany has a special emphasis on the teaching and healing ministry of Jesus. The great celebration and focus of these weeks is that salvation is not limited to Israel but extends to the Gentiles, as well.

Every season in the Christian Year has its unique angle of grace. With Epiphany, we see that one of the most scandalous truths of Christianity is that God graces common ordinary people who seem far from God with the gift of Jesus. 

God grants repentance that leads to life for all kinds of people no matter their race, ethnicity, gender, class, or background. It is a wondrous and astounding spiritual truth that God’s gracious concern is not limited to a certain type of person or a particular group of people.

Grace is and ought to be the guiding factor in how we interact with people. 

Losing sight of grace leads to being critical and defensive. Like King Herod of old, a graceless person becomes enamored with earthly power and control. But embracing grace leads to the humility of seeing the image of God in people quite different from ourselves. 

Like the Apostle Peter, who learned in a vision to bring the gospel to non-Jews, old legalisms begin to wear away so that people from all walks of life can have access to Jesus and his gracious saving and healing ministry. (Acts 10-11:18)

Grace brings down barriers and causes us to do away with unnecessary distinctions between others. Our appropriate response to such a grace is to glorify God for his marvelous and amazing work.

It is a merciful reality that the Magi, or Wise Men, pagan astrologers, were directed to the Messiah. A light was provided to lead them to Jesus. Apart from God’s care and intervention they would have remained in darkness. 

Adoration of the Magi by He Qi

It is still true for people today. This old broken world is wrapped in darkness. All kinds of people have no light at the end of the tunnel of their lives for hope and new life. The gospel of Jesus Christ brings that light to those unable to see. Jesus, in his teaching ministry, exhorted his followers not to hide their light but to let it shine for all to see. (Matthew 5:14-16)

Sometimes, maybe oftentimes, the best way to bring resolution to our own troubles and problems is through helping others make sense of their lives through the gracious light of Christ. Then, they can see an appearance, an epiphany, of what their lives could be in the gracious rule of the kingdom of God. 

As we celebrate Epiphany and journey with Jesus through his earthly upbringing and into his gracious ministry to people, let us keep vigilance to not let our light grow dim. Instead, let us hunger and thirst after Christ’s righteousness so that our joy is full, and our light is bright.

God of mercy, Lord of all, you have gifted the Church through the goodness of your grace to be your hands and do your work, to be your voice and share your words, to bring healing to broken lives. You have graciously gifted your people with the blessings of your Spirit, the power to transform lives and make all things new.

Now may our hearts receive, our mouths proclaim, our hands prepare for compassionate service so that the love we have may overflow into the hearts of others. May they receive your grace, your renewing Spirit, and your love, through Jesus Christ our Savior. Amen.

Psalm 111 – Theology 101

Total Praise by Barbara Hayes

Praise the Lord!

I will thank the Lord with all my heart
    in the meeting of his good people.
The Lord does great things;
    those who enjoy them seek them.
What he does is glorious and splendid,
    and his goodness continues forever.
His miracles are unforgettable.
    The Lord is kind and merciful.
He gives food to those who fear him.
    He remembers his agreement forever.
He has shown his people his power
    when he gave them the lands of other nations.

Everything he does is good and fair;
    all his orders can be trusted.
They will continue forever.
    They were made true and right.
He sets his people free.
    He made his agreement everlasting.
    He is holy and wonderful.

Wisdom begins with respect for the Lord;
    those who obey his orders have good understanding.
    He should be praised forever. (NCV)

First and foremost, the psalms are about God. So then, the psalter is a rich description and repository of sound theology. As such, each psalm enlightens us about the Lord of the universe. Keep in mind that Christians are presently in the season of Epiphany. Although Lent is fast approaching with its own seasonal focus, we are still inhabiting the light shown for us – beginning with the star of Bethlehem and bringing all kinds of people to the Christ.

The Psalms are a wonderful source of light, leading us to discover, know, love, and serve the God who has shown grace to us by divine revelation. To read and pray the psalter is to have a crash course in Theology 101…

  • We pray because we believe we will be heard. 
  • We believe we will be heard because we believe there is a God who listens. 
  • We believe there is a God who listens because we believe the One who listens is always merciful, kind, and good. 

The basis of all prayer is our view of God.  Nobody sustains a prayer life to a fickle distant God who is only attentive whenever it strikes his fancy. But if God is really God – fair, just, committed, and full of good deeds – then, prayer is an effortless interaction, and we are eager to do it.

Notice the descriptions of God in today’s psalm. God’s attributes and character translate perfectly into just and loving action in the world:

God is full of glory, therefore everything the Lord does is splendid.

God is good all the time, therefore goodness never runs out of steam.

God does miracles so that we will not forget the accessibility of divine power.

God is kind and merciful as demonstrated by providing for human need and keeping divine promises.

God is honest and fair; therefore, humanity can trust in divine judgments.

God is free, and so, can set people free from their worst spiritual bondage and self-imposed prisons.

The way to access such incredible divine resources is through honoring and respecting the Lord. Because God is the very definition of merciful grace and steadfast love, human overtures of respect and obedience become willing and joyful. In other words, we obey God because we want to – not because we must.

Entrusting oneself to a benevolent God who makes and keeps promises to people is easy. No coercion or persuasion is necessary. All that need be done is to declare the good things God has done.

Loyal and gracious God, you always keep your promises, and there is never a time when you renege on them.  Thank you for promising deliverance from sin, death, and hell through your Son, our Savior, Jesus Christ who with you and the Holy Spirit benevolently reign forever and ever.  Amen.