Some Well-Ordered Wisdom (Psalm 37:1-17)

Don’t be worried on account of the wicked;
    don’t be jealous of those who do wrong.
They will soon disappear like grass that dries up;
    they will die like plants that wither.

Trust in the Lord and do good;
    live in the land and be safe.
Seek your happiness in the Lord,
    and he will give you your heart’s desire.

Give yourself to the Lord;
    trust in him, and he will help you;
he will make your righteousness shine like the noonday sun.

Be patient and wait for the Lord to act;
    don’t be worried about those who prosper
    or those who succeed in their evil plans.

Don’t give in to worry or anger;
    it only leads to trouble.
Those who trust in the Lord will possess the land,
    but the wicked will be driven out.

Soon the wicked will disappear;
    you may look for them, but you won’t find them;
but the humble will possess the land
    and enjoy prosperity and peace.

The wicked plot against good people
    and glare at them with hate.
But the Lord laughs at wicked people,
    because he knows they will soon be destroyed.

The wicked draw their swords and bend their bows
    to kill the poor and needy,
    to slaughter those who do what is right;
but they will be killed by their own swords,
    and their bows will be smashed.

The little that a good person owns
    is worth more than the wealth of all the wicked,
because the Lord will take away the strength of the wicked,
    but protect those who are good. (Good News Translation)

Today’s Psalm feels as if it could be in the book of Proverbs; it’s chocked full of wisdom sayings. And wisdom is most definitely something you, me, and the entire world needs. Indeed, we have enough fools around us running their mouths with a bunch of gobbledygook that’s nonsensical and meaningless.

We need helpful language and well-ordered words which reflect our ordered creation.

The underlying assumption of all biblical wisdom literature is that our world has been created by God with a material and moral order built into it.

That means that to buck this order is stupid and foolish. Somebody who walks off the roof of their house because they don’t believe in gravity will experience the harsh reality of that belief. Likewise, anyone who walks any old way they want in this world, without regard to the divine force operating within it, is going to experience a broken spirit.

Our human well-being depends on knowing the ordered creation we inhabit. There are social expectations which need to be realized in order to conform and be in sync with the natural (and supernatural!) universal rhythms all around us. Those expectations are framed for us as wisdom sayings.

Our actions and inactions have consequences. It’s our task to gain experiential knowledge as we move about this earth and interact with others. Notice I did not say we need to be perfect. No, instead, we are continually in a mode of improvement – seeking and learning to be better and do better.

And one of the things we all must discover is that our own personal actions and attitudes effects the entire surrounding community.

Biblical wisdom literature communicates how we receive blessing and how we hold onto it. True wisdom is to live in a responsible awareness of both Creator and creation – and then to make appropriate choices which will bless God and others.

So, in our Psalm for today, we have some wise choices to make that put us in the groove of how things are ordered and established:

  • Don’t worry about the evil simpletons around you. Why? Because in the Lord’s well-ordered world, the wicked cannot and will not survive; their end is certain, just as sure as death and taxes.

Those who are evil—
they are like straw
    blown by the wind.
Sinners won’t have an excuse
    on the day of judgment,
and they won’t have a place
    with the people of God.
The Lord protects everyone
    who follows him,
but the wicked follow a road
    that leads to ruin. (Psalm 1:4-6, CEV)

  • Trust the Lord. Everything changes. Everyone is fickle. Why trust? Because God, unlike everything and everyone else, is consistent, stable, and always true to character.

Trust God from the bottom of your heart;
    don’t try to figure out everything on your own.
Listen for God’s voice in everything you do, everywhere you go;
    he’s the one who will keep you on track. (Proverbs 3:5-6, MSG)

  • Be patient and wait on the Lord. Why? Because God is good, all the time, and has only good plans in mind for you and me. We short circuit what God is doing whenever we fail to have patience.

Be patient, then, brothers and sisters, until the Lord’s coming. See how the farmer waits for the land to yield its valuable crop, patiently waiting for the autumn and spring rains. You too, be patient and stand firm, because the Lord’s coming is near. (James 5:7-8, NIV)

The best things in life are internal, not external. One’s inner well-being, peace of mind, emotional awareness, and spiritual health are worth infinitely more than any title, position, wealth, or delusions of control.

A well-ordered life comes from tapping into the divine resources available to us.

Grant us patience, O Lord, to follow the road you have taken. Let our confidence not rest in our own understanding but in your guiding hand; let our desires not be for our own comfort, but for the joy of your kingdom; for your cross is our hope and our joy now and unto the day of eternity. Amen.

– A Prayer of St. Augustine

Build It Now! (Haggai 1:1-15a)

Statue of the prophet Haggai, by Giovanni Pisano, c.1290 C.E., Siena, Italy

In the second year of King Darius, on the first day of the sixth month, the word of the Lord came through the prophet Haggai to Zerubbabel son of Shealtiel, governor of Judah, and to Joshua son of Jozadak, the high priest:

This is what the Lord Almighty says: “These people say, ‘The time has not yet come to rebuild the Lord’s house.’”

Then the word of the Lord came through the prophet Haggai: “Is it a time for you yourselves to be living in your paneled houses, while this house remains a ruin?”

Now this is what the Lord Almighty says: “Give careful thought to your ways. You have planted much but harvested little. You eat, but never have enough. You drink, but never have your fill. You put on clothes but are not warm. You earn wages, only to put them in a purse with holes in it.”

This is what the Lord Almighty says: “Give careful thought to your ways. Go up into the mountains and bring down timber and build my house, so that I may take pleasure in it and be honored,” says the Lord. 

“You expected much, but see, it turned out to be little. What you brought home, I blew away. Why?” declares the Lord Almighty. “Because of my house, which remains a ruin, while each of you is busy with your own house. 

Therefore, because of you the heavens have withheld their dew and the earth its crops. I called for a drought on the fields and the mountains, on the grain, the new wine, the olive oil and everything else the ground produces, on people and livestock, and on all the labor of your hands.”

Then Zerubbabel son of Shealtiel, Joshua son of Jozadak, the high priest, and the whole remnant of the people obeyed the voice of the Lord their God and the message of the prophet Haggai, because the Lord their God had sent him. And the people feared the Lord.

Then Haggai, the Lord’s messenger, gave this message of the Lord to the people: “I am with you,” declares the Lord. So the Lord stirred up the spirit of Zerubbabel son of Shealtiel, governor of Judah, and the spirit of Joshua son of Jozadak, the high priest, and the spirit of the whole remnant of the people. They came and began to work on the house of the Lord Almighty, their God, on the twenty-fourth day of the sixth month. (New International Version)

Timing is everything.

There is a time to ponder and plan and there’s a time to move and act. If the time is ripe for action, then the lack of initiative is plain old procrastination. But how do you know when to act?

If the Lord says it’s time, well then, it’s time!

God’s people wouldn’t have described their inaction in rebuilding God’s house as dragging their feet. They perceived their inertia as a sensible delay.

Yet, the Lord saw the people’s approach as inexcusable enough to send a prophet with a specific message and call to action: Build the house now!

Let’s get a feel for why God’s call for immediacy comes when it does. In the ancient world, it had always been the practice of armies to assimilate conquered peoples into the culture of the conquering king. 

In the eighth century B.C.E., the Assyrian Empire conquered the northern kingdom of Israel. The Assyrians took most of the people into captivity, left the poorest of the people alone, and resettled the land with some of their own Assyrian people. The inevitable intermarriages resulted in their progeny being known as the Samaritans in the New Testament Gospels, as the Samaritans.

Two-hundred years after Assyria conquered Israel, Nebuchadnezzar besieged the southern kingdom of Judah and took over Jerusalem. He carried Daniel and all the other educated and professional people to Babylon. In the course of taking the city, Nebuchadnezzar tore down the wall and destroyed the temple that Solomon had made.

During the Babylonian exile, the Persians conquered Babylon and became rulers of a large geographical empire. Because the massive Persian Empire was in control of so many different kinds of people across such a vast territory, they were not able to operate as previous empires did by assimilation and resettlement. 

Instead, the Persians did something new and different: They encouraged and enabled their conquered peoples to keep their religion and their culture. The only caveat was that they had to give tribute and allegiance to the empire and pray for the king. This is why Nehemiah, Ezra, and Haggai were able to return to Jerusalem and given royal authority to rebuild the wall and the temple. 

But, from the git go, there was opposition to the rebuilding from the old Canaanite inhabitants of the land. After many years, the wall was rebuilt but the temple restoration bogged down. The people slowly became discouraged and lost enthusiasm to do the work. 

Understandably, the people got caught up in taking care of their own homes and just plain neglected working on the temple. Over time, they just forgot about the entire project. But God didn’t.

The prophet Haggai made it clear that the people’s mental distraction and physical neglect was taken as disrespect by the Lord. Haggai insisted that the reason the people were not experiencing blessing on their land was because they simply did not have their priorities straight. 

Thus, God sent the prophet Haggai to preach a sermon entitled: Build the house now! 

To the people’s credit, they responded to the call of God and started rebuilding God’s house. The work was completed. However, there seemed to be a problem. 

Rebuilding the Temple, by Gustave Doré, 1866

Moving into the rest of Haggai’s prophecy, the newly restored temple didn’t look anything like Solomon’s grand and glorious temple. Many of the older worshipers could still remember Solomon’s temple; to them, the rebuilt temple seemed like a bologna sandwich compared to the T-bone steak of the past. 

So, God sent Haggai again to encourage the people. The Lord will be with them. The restored temple may not look the same, but what makes the temple great is God’s glory.

An important takeaway from the prophecy of Haggai is that the Lord is a jealous God; God’s people are to worship the Lord with all of their heart, soul, mind, and strength. 

We also learn that the Lord is sovereign and supreme over all creation. God owns everything and will use it all to accomplish divine purposes on this earth. 

In addition, we see that God calls people to new work and fresh ministry. The Lord was behind the destruction of the old temple; and when the time was right, God called the people to build a new ministry.

And we learn something about ourselves, as well. God’s people need to hear and respond to God’s call. Haggai put a God-sized vision before the people; he helped them imagine what the new temple would be like – full of God’s glory.

God is doing a new thing. The Lord continues calling people to:

  • Seek first the kingdom of God. (Deuteronomy 4:29; Psalm 63:1; Matthew 6:33; Hebrews 11:6)
  • Love God with whole hearts. (Deuteronomy 6:5, 11:1-22, 19:9, 30:16-20; Matthew 22:37)
  • Love neighbor as we love ourselves. (Leviticus 19:18; Matthew 22:38; Romans 13:9; Galatians 5:14)
  • Make disciples of Christ from all nationalities. (Matthew 28:18-20)
  • Be witnesses to God’s glory in Christ. (Psalm 66:16; Acts 1:8; 2 Timothy 2:2)
  • Obey the Holy Spirit. (Acts 5:31-33; Romans 6:17; Hebrews 5:8-9)

It is good to remember and celebrate past ministries; and it is also good to throw ourselves into the new ministries which God calls us and to build them for God’s glory.

My friends, build it now.

Glory to you, O God, the One who is able to do far beyond all that we could ask or imagine by your divine power at work within us; glory to you, blessed God, in the church and in Christ Jesus for all generations, through the empowering Holy Spirit, forever and always. Amen.

Make Room for Jesus (John 8:39-47)

Christ and Pharisee, by Russian painter Ivan Filichev, 1993

“Abraham is our father,” they [the religious leaders] answered.

“If you were Abraham’s children,” said Jesus, “then you would do what Abraham did. As it is, you are looking for a way to kill me, a man who has told you the truth that I heard from God. Abraham did not do such things. You are doing the works of your own father.”

“We are not illegitimate children,” they protested. “The only Father we have is God himself.”

Jesus said to them, “If God were your Father, you would love me, for I have come here from God. I have not come on my own; God sent me. Why is my language not clear to you? Because you are unable to hear what I say. You belong to your father, the devil, and you want to carry out your father’s desires. He was a murderer from the beginning, not holding to the truth, for there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks his native language, for he is a liar and the father of lies. 

Yet because I tell the truth, you do not believe me! Can any of you prove me guilty of sin? If I am telling the truth, why don’t you believe me? Whoever belongs to God hears what God says. The reason you do not hear is that you do not belong to God.” (New International Version)

Glass-half-full or glass-half-empty? I confess I really don’t like those binary categories for people. That’s because I believe it misses a very important aspect of being a human. What’s most necessary is to have glass-fully-empty people.

While the religious leaders of Christ’ day were debating the subject of whether Jesus is of God, or not, they failed to notice something significant about themselves:

Their glasses were so full that they had no room for Messiah, even when he was standing right in front of their faces.

You cannot be full of God and full of yourself at the same time.

Only an empty vessel can be filled. Half-full or half-empty people only end up being in conflict with each other. They cannot find any room for Jesus in their lives.

Jesus had been dealing with these sort of shenanigans even before he was born. His poor parents had a dickens of a time finding a place for him to be born. There was no room in the inn. All the places were full. God was about to break into the world, and everyone was scuttling about as glass-half-full and glass-half-empty people.

In his earthly ministry, the religious leaders viewed Jesus as a competitor, not a compatriot – pitting themselves in conflict with him, even to the extreme.

“You are looking for a way to kill me, because you have no room for my word.” (John 8:37, NIV)

Conflict is inevitable. Put a bunch of sinners together in one place, add a few grumpy curmudgeons, some know-it-alls, then fireworks happens. I’ve always thought that every human institution is about one or two knock-down drag-out fights away from being non-existent.

At the heart of all the conflict is either an inability or an unwillingness to make room for another’s point of view. Where there is no room for mystery, there’s no room for Jesus.

How many settled beliefs and behaviors do you have? So many that your head and hands have no room for Jesus to do the unexpected?

Are you full of thoughts, opinions, and convictions? So much so that your interpretation of everything leaves no room for the contrary, even if it comes from Jesus?

Here’s how we get full of ourselves:

  1. Desire arises within. Options are considered in meeting the want or need.
  2. Conflict enters because there are others with competing desires.
  3. Expectations are formed when the desire is unmet. 
  4. Demands are made because of missed expectations.
  5. Judgment is meted-out to those not complying to the demands.
  6. Separation occurs with the intent of hurting another through a withdrawal of relationship.

You end up not making room for the other in your heart and life. You don’t make room because you’re already full of yourself and don’t want to change.

We, however, are to make room for Jesus and others because Jesus made room for us and expects us to do so for others.

My Father’s house has room to spare. (John 14:2, CEB)

Make room in your hearts for us. (2 Corinthians 7:2, NRSV)

Let the Word of Christ—the Message—have the run of the house. Give it plenty of room in your lives. (Colossians 3:16, MSG)

Finding true and lasting satisfaction in Jesus as the Way is how to realize forgiveness, peace, and reconciliation. There is room at the foot of Christ’s cross for both me and you.

There’s Room at the Cross for You, by Billy Gaines

The cross upon which Jesus died
Is a shelter in which we can hide
And its grace so free is sufficient for me
And deep is its fountain as wide as the sea.

There’s room at the cross for you
There’s room at the cross for you
Though millions have come, there’s still room for one
Yes there’s room at the cross for you.

Though millions have found him a friend
And have turned from the sins they have sinned
The Savior still waits to open the gates
And welcome a sinner before it’s too late.

The hand of my Savior is strong
And the love of my Savior is long
Through sunshine or rain, through loss or in gain,
The blood flows from Calvary to cleanse every stain.

Get Along with Each Other (Romans 3:1-8)

So, what difference does it make who’s a Jew and who isn’t, who has been trained in God’s ways and who hasn’t? As it turns out, it makes a lot of difference—but not the difference so many have assumed.

First, there’s the matter of being put in charge of writing down and caring for God’s revelation, these Holy Scriptures. So, what if, in the course of doing that, some of those Jews abandoned their post? God didn’t abandon them. Do you think their faithlessness cancels out his faithfulness? Not on your life! Depend on it: God keeps his word even when the whole world is lying through its teeth. Scripture says the same:

Your words stand fast and true;
Rejection doesn’t faze you.

But if our wrongdoing only underlines and confirms God’s right-doing, shouldn’t we be commended for helping out? Since our lies don’t even make a dent in his truth, isn’t it wrong of God to back us to the wall and hold us to our word? These questions come up. The answer to such questions is no, a most emphatic No! How else would things ever get straightened out if God didn’t do the straightening?

It’s simply perverse to say, “If my lies serve to show off God’s truth all the more gloriously, why blame me? I’m doing God a favor.” Some people are actually trying to put such words in our mouths, claiming that we go around saying, “The more evil we do, the more good God does, so let’s just do it!” That’s pure slander, as I’m sure you’ll agree. (The Message)

The Apostle Paul’s letter to the Roman Church is a hefty sixteen chapters of dense material and extended arguments of intense reasoning. Likely,

Likely, Paul felt compelled to be so verbose because of the church’s situation.

The Roman Church, at the time of Paul’s writing, was made up of both Jewish and Gentile believers in Jesus. Jews and Gentiles have a complicated history together, to say the least.

The Roman Empire was firmly in control of Palestine and did not always treat the Jewish people well. In addition, the religious backgrounds of Jew and Gentile were as different as you can get.

Whereas the Jewish Christians had a long and rich history with God and the Old Testament, the Gentile Christians were green believers, fresh from centuries of paganism and esoteric rituals. Now, the two of them were together in one place, worshiping Jesus together.

Jews and Gentiles together made for a potentially combustible situation.

Throughout the letter to the Romans, Paul goes back and forth addressing the two groups of Jews and Gentiles. The overarching problem was this:

  • The Jewish believers tended to look down on the Gentile Christians and thought they needed to become Jewish to really be the kind of Christians God was looking for.
  • The Gentile believers tended to dismiss their Jewish brothers and sisters as backward and stuck in tradition.

Each group thought the other must become like them. So, Paul, bless his apostolic heart, had a hot mess in the making with these believers.

In our New Testament lesson for today, Paul is directing his comments toward the Gentile Christians. He wanted them to gain some appreciation for the Jewish people. After all, they were chosen by God to become a nation of priests and prophets for the world. Discounting that history would be to neglect and even invalidate their shared salvation.

For Paul, to have two churches, one Jew and the other Gentile, would be a complete travesty of Christ’s redemption for humanity.

Jesus sought to bring disparate peoples together and not keep them divided. The cross freed us by eliminating the barriers which separate us. The Roman Church needed to work together at being one people under the lordship of Christ.

There was to be no ethnic, religious, or political one-upmanship on Paul’s watch.

Truth be told, both Jew and Gentile did not always do so well with their respective histories. So, there is no ground for boasting or trying to argue for their own way. In fact, the unfaithfulness of people simply shows the incredible faithfulness of God in greater relief. 

If there were no sin, grace would not be needed; no cross would have existed. Just because the foulness and degradation of sin brings out the gracious, faithful, and forgiving character of God in Christ, does not mean that sin is okay or that we can flippantly wave it off with uttering some mumbo-jumbo cheap grace which devalues the majesty of God.

For example, when antebellum southern slaveholders in nineteenth-century America argued for their peculiar institution by saying that snatching black Africans from their homes was a good thing so that they could get out of their religious animistic worldview and be exposed to Christianity, I am positively sure that the Apostle Paul rolled over in his grave and begged Jesus to resurrect him early and send him to tackle such an affront to the cross of Christ!

Sin is never to be excused through twisted human mental gymnastics.

Paul worked laboriously to unite the churches he established and bring differing people groups together under Christ.

  • This does not mean is that all cultural and personal distinctions are ignored or erased.
  • This does mean that we value one another’s differences and gather around the shared value of knowing Jesus Christ.

The Church was neither going to become Jewish nor Gentile but something altogether new – one new people out of the two. Paul framed the matter this way to the Ephesian Church:

Therefore, remember that formerly you who are Gentiles by birth and called “uncircumcised” by those who call themselves “the circumcision” (which is done in the body by human hands)— remember that at that time you were separate from Christ, excluded from citizenship in Israel and foreigners to the covenants of the promise, without hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near by the blood of Christ.

For he himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, by setting aside in his flesh the law with its commands and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace, 16 and in one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility. He came and preached peace to you who were far away and peace to those who were near. For through him we both have access to the Father by one Spirit. (Ephesians 2:11-18, NIV)

Solitary righteousness is an oxymoron. Righteousness can only be truly lived and expressed with other people.

Yes, there is freedom in Christ. Yet, that freedom must be continually applied through making every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.

So, get along with one another.

O God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, our only Savior, the Prince of Peace: Give us grace to seriously lay aside all unhappy divisions. Take away all hatred and prejudice, and whatsoever else may hinder us from godly union and harmony: that, as there is but one Body, and one Spirit, and one hope of our calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of us all; so, may we be forever all of one heart, and of one soul, united in one holy bond of truth and peace, faith and love, with one mind and one mouth, glorify Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.