Isaiah 9:18-10:4 – The Reality in Front of Us

Surely wickedness burns like a fire;
    it consumes briers and thorns,
it sets the forest thickets ablaze,
    so that it rolls upward in a column of smoke.
By the wrath of the Lord Almighty
    the land will be scorched
and the people will be fuel for the fire;
    they will not spare one another.
On the right they will devour,
    but still be hungry;
on the left they will eat,
    but not be satisfied.
Each will feed on the flesh of their own offspring:
    Manasseh will feed on Ephraim, and Ephraim on Manasseh;
    together they will turn against Judah.

Yet for all this, his anger is not turned away,
    his hand is still upraised.

Woe to those who make unjust laws,
    to those who issue oppressive decrees,
to deprive the poor of their rights
    and withhold justice from the oppressed of my people,
making widows their prey
    and robbing the fatherless.
What will you do on the day of reckoning,
    when disaster comes from afar?
To whom will you run for help?
    Where will you leave your riches?
Nothing will remain but to cringe among the captives
    or fall among the slain.

Yet for all this, his anger is not turned away,
    his hand is still upraised. (New International Version)

There are times when God has some very hard things to say.

The Lord does get angry. And that’s a good thing.

The Love/Anger Reality of God

God’s anger and wrath are a form of God’s love. A heartless unloving god is fickle and unconcerned for much of the evil which happens in the world. Conversely, a loving God is not okay with wicked persons having their way. A loving God’s anger is kindled against injustice. A loving God doesn’t long put up with people oppressing other people, and taking advantage of them.

So, this is what the Old Testament prophets are all about – communicating and calling people to change their ways because they are harming others. And when the harming and the hurting is done purposefully and callously, then the ire of a holy God is raised. The Lord will not contend with this sort of attitude and action.

The language of judgment, in today’s Old Testament prophetic lesson, is an invitation for us to take a very hard look at the reality which was responsible for such an angry response from God.

The Social/Economic Reality of Both the Prophet’s World and Today’s World

God expects justice, to have people helping one another thrive and flourish in this life, to be concerned for the common good of all persons, not just some. In Isaiah’s day, all that God saw was greed and selfishness, injustice and corruption. And God was not okay with it. The unjust systems and practices were a failure of the people to live up to the Lord’s expectations for righteous living.

Sadly, issues of justice and righteousness are still relevant in our world today. Throughout the earth, this very day, the powerless are being exploited; the rich get wealthier at the cost of the poor; greed, corruption, outsourcing, and unjust legal systems are the norm and not the exception.

Much of the world gloomily faces racism, poverty, gender injustice, violence, famine, health disparities and inequities. And so called “religious” folk are at the forefront of ensuring that these evils continue to persist. So, why would not a holy God become infuriated at such a situation!?

A 12th century German depiction of Isaiah the prophet

The Religious Reality of Isaiah’s Day and Our Day

The religious reality of Isaiah’s day is not so far off from our own today. People were, and are, engaging in forms of spiritual and/or religious activity while being completely devoid of justice. Folks attend religious gatherings and believe in God – and treat others unjustly. They talk of faith in the Lord, while trusting in wealth and assets.

It was, and is, a world where people bow before their own works and ingenuity, focusing their attention on money and power. It’s a world with no room for the God of the Bible and true divine justice.

Far too many “believers” espouse unethical leaders and turn a blind eye to morally bankrupt leadership. Far too many religious folk want what they want, with no regard for the needs of others.

The Divine Reality of God’s Pathos

We as people need to contend with a God who is a profoundly emotional Being.

God is moved and affected by what happens in the world. The Lord’s anger and judgment is aroused because of God’s love and compassion.

God both binds up the injuries of people, as well as inflicts wounds. This ought not be surprising. After all, we readily understand, through our extensive healthcare systems, that medical interventions and surgeries are needed, and that they hurt.

A God of justice is, of course, angered by ethical violations. The Lord is rightly upset that the world often falls so woefully short of instituting a just social, economic, and political order for all citizens to enjoy.

Everyone must deal with the God who is not a brain-on-a-stick but has a deep heart for people everywhere to experience truth, justice, righteousness, salvation, and love.

Conclusion

Yes, there is a coming reality in which a new world will emerge. For the Christian, this occurs when Christ returns to judge the living and the dead. Complete deliverance from sin, death, and hell shall be realized.

But we aren’t there yet. We still need to cope with the world as it is today, and deal with it’s failures, shortcomings, and sins.

There is currently a massive need to be attentive to the needy, to proclaim the gospel to all nations, and to be involved in reforming unjust systems in our cities, communities, and countries. Salvation is meant for the whole person, not just the spiritual part.

Therefore, we have a choice as to how we will approach the world.

Will we withdraw from it? Will we engage it, only to take advantage of others within it? Or will we participate with God in transforming it?

  • Will we hear the cries of the oppressed?
  • Will we live out God’s commitment to the poor, the weak, and the sick?
  • Will we work for economic and social equity?
  • Will we break the bonds of injustice?
  • Will we help people to reach their full potential?
  • Will we preach good news?
  • Will we suffer with those who suffer and show solidarity with the weak?
  • Will we be truly spiritual folk who invest in the concerns of humanity?
  • Will we take up our cross and follow the Lord in being suffering servants for a lost world in need of God and God’s justice?

The reality in front of us is one which demands confrontation, participation, and reformation. Will you do it?

Blessed and holy God and Father of all, it is your will that all people be gathered together as one family in yourself. Fill the hearts of humanity with the fire of your love and with the desire to ensure justice for all. By sharing the good gifts that you give us, may we secure an equality for all our brothers and sisters throughout the world. May there be an end to division, strife and war. May there be a dawning of a just society built on love and peace. We ask this in the name of Jesus, our Lord. Amen.

Psalm 80:1-7 – Restore Us

Give ear, O Shepherd of Israel,
    you who lead Joseph like a flock!
You who are enthroned upon the cherubim, shine forth
    before Ephraim and Benjamin and Manasseh.
Stir up your might,
    and come to save us!

Restore us, O God;
    let your face shine, that we may be saved.

O Lord God of hosts,
    how long will you be angry with your people’s prayers?
You have fed them with the bread of tears,
    and given them tears to drink in full measure.
You make us the scorn of our neighbors;
    our enemies laugh among themselves.

Restore us, O God of hosts;
    let your face shine, that we may be saved. (New Revised Standard Version)

Restoration is a beautiful thing. I don’t often watch makeover shows on television. But if I’m channel surfing and see an old house, appearing ready for the wrecking ball, getting restored to its original charm and beauty, I’m hooked. We resonate deeply with things being repaired and rejuvenated, as if it is brand new.

For that to occur, someone needs to have a vision to see the old become new. If not, then the drab discouragement of a gray and dreary environment can easily take over. We then forget the original shine of how things once were to the point where we cannot even imagine that it’s worth salvaging. 

In the context of today’s psalm, God’s people once enjoyed the covenant and the promises of God. But over time, the relationship was not maintained and cared for. So, the people gradually slid into disrepair. Centuries of sheer neglect brought a situation where it seemed the only recourse was to raze everything and begin again.

The psalms have been the prayer book of God’s people for over three millennia. Suffering and hard circumstances provide the backdrop for many of them. Sometimes the difficulty is external – another nation oppressing the people. Yet other times, like in today’s psalm, the problem is internal – sheer neglect of God’s commands over time. It went on to the point that God’s longsuffering ran out.

I would much rather enjoy God’s favor than God’s disappointing anger. To begin addressing any sort of spiritual neglect, the work of prayer becomes the tool we need. Restoring broken lives and broken communities to their original beauty starts with prayer and praise, offered daily and often. 

Seven times a day I praise you
    for your righteous laws. (Psalm 119:164, NIV)

What’s more, our tears, which seem, at times, to be our daily bread, are a kind of baptismal offering to God – prayers coming through groans which words cannot express. Even with our prayers, the Lord is gracious to help us with the requests themselves and not just the answers.

And the Holy Spirit helps us in our weakness. For example, we don’t know what God wants us to pray for. But the Holy Spirit prays for us with groanings that cannot be expressed in words. (Romans 8:26, NLT)

God is waiting for us to approach the throne of grace with confidence. And we must keep coming to the Lord, again and again. 

Jesus understands every weakness of ours because he was tempted in every way that we are. But he did not sin! So whenever we are in need, we should come bravely before the throne of our merciful God. There we will be treated with undeserved kindness, and we will find help. (Hebrews 4:15-16, CEV)

Like the continual routine of using the hammer, pounding nail after nail, so we must offer our prayers morning, noon, and night, day after day, crying out to God with the great cry of the church: Restore us, O God; let your face shine, that we may be saved!

May the hope of Advent, the love of God in Christ, and the encouragement of the Holy Spirit restore your soul and enliven your spirit, now and forever. Amen.

O loving and gracious God, bring restoration to my life, to my church, to my family, to my workplace, and to my community.  Things are not as they once were.  Send your Holy Spirit so that we might enjoy seasons of blessing again.  Restore, renew, revive and rejuvenate our disordered churches.  May your face shine upon us once again through the mighty name of Jesus.  Amen.

Amos 8:1-7 – A Prophet’s Perspective on the Powerful and the Poor

This is what the Almighty Lord showed me: a basket of ripe summer fruit.

He asked, “What do you see, Amos?”

“A basket of ripe summer fruit,” I answered.

Then the Lord said to me, “My people Israel are now ripe. I will no longer overlook what they have done. On that day, the songs of the temple will become loud cries,” declares the Almighty Lord. “There will be dead bodies scattered everywhere. Hush!”

Listen to this, those who trample on the needy
and ruin those who are oppressed in the world.
You say to yourselves,
“When will the New Moon Festival be over
so that we can sell more grain?
When will the day of rest—a holy day, be over
so that we can sell more wheat?
We can shrink the size of the bushel baskets,
increase the cost,
and cheat with dishonest scales.
We can buy the poor with money
and the needy for a pair of sandals.
We can sell the husks mixed in with the wheat.”

The Lord has sworn an oath by Jacob’s pride:
“I will never forget anything that they have done.” (God’s Word Translation)

I’ve been in the church most of my life. I have listened to thousands of sermons, as well as preaching thousands of them myself. I can count on both hands how many times I’ve heard a sermon from one of the twelve minor prophets in the Bible. Although I personally have preached on them more times than that, it still pales in comparison with how many sermons I’ve preached from the New Testament gospels or epistles.

This, I believe, is an indictment on us, especially those with privilege and power. If you add the major prophets, we have sixteen books contained in Holy Scripture calling out powerful and influential people’s oppression of others. To overlook such a girth of text is to stick our fingers in our ears and refuse to listen to God.

Those with power, position, and privilege must continually be vigilant to use such influence for the benefit of all persons – not just themselves or people just like them. The books of the prophets make it quite plain that God cares about justice. God will uphold the needy. The Lord will stand with the oppressed. If we fail to share a divine sense of justice and injustice, there will be hell to pay.

“Extreme poverty anywhere is a threat to human security everywhere.”

Kofi Annan

God is longsuffering. The Lord patiently awaits us to pay attention. Yet, eventually, that patience will run its course. A prophet will be sent to voice God’s concerns. Like a basket of ripe fruit now finally ready to be eaten, so God’s justice is ripe and ready for action.

The prophet Amos delivered a scathing message to the ancient Israelites about their total disregard for the poor and needy in the land. The people in positions of authority and power only looked on the less fortunate as commodities – as pawns to be taken advantage of for the rich merchants. 

Because the wealthy never took the time to listen to the poor, God would not listen to them. Judgment was coming, and it would not go so well for the power brokers of society who only thought of their business and squeezing others for more money.

The bald fact of the matter is that few people rush to have poor folk as their friends. Those in poverty are often overlooked and disregarded. Either they are ignored altogether or are given hand-outs and services without ever having any significant human contact. Even when there is help, it comes from a distance.

In other words, those in authority rarely take the time to listen and get to know the real face of poverty. If there isn’t a photo opportunity, then encounters with the poor are not likely to happen with politicians, or anyone else. After all, so many are busy making money, checking stock portfolios, and considering how to get bigger market shares…. 

Oh, my, perhaps we have an answer as to why there is no revival in the land. God shows such solidarity with the poor that to ignore them is to ignore him.  No matter our financial picture and outlook, every one of us can grace the poor with the gift of time and listening.  For in doing so we might just be listening to the voice of God.

Gracious God, you are found everywhere – both the halls of power, and the back alleys of slums.  As I seek you more and more, may I see the face of Jesus in everyone I encounter, whether rich or poor so that I can share the gift of life with them all.  Amen.

1 Samuel 15:10-31 – Rationalizing Disobedience

King Saul by William Wetmore Story (1819-1895) at the North Carolina Museum of Art

Then the word of the Lord came to Samuel: “I regret that I have made Saul king, because he has turned away from me and has not carried out my instructions.” Samuel was angry, and he cried out to the Lord all that night.

Early in the morning Samuel got up and went to meet Saul, but he was told, “Saul has gone to Carmel. There he has set up a monument in his own honor and has turned and gone on down to Gilgal.”

When Samuel reached him, Saul said, “The Lord bless you! I have carried out the Lord’s instructions.”

But Samuel said, “What then is this bleating of sheep in my ears? What is this lowing of cattle that I hear?”

Saul answered, “The soldiers brought them from the Amalekites; they spared the best of the sheep and cattle to sacrifice to the Lord your God, but we totally destroyed the rest. “Enough!” Samuel said to Saul. “Let me tell you what the Lord said to me last night.”

“Tell me,” Saul replied.

Samuel said, “Although you were once small in your own eyes, did you not become the head of the tribes of Israel? The Lord anointed you king over Israel. And he sent you on a mission, saying, ‘Go and completely destroy those wicked people, the Amalekites; wage war against them until you have wiped them out.’ Why did you not obey the Lord? Why did you pounce on the plunder and do evil in the eyes of the Lord?”

“But I did obey the Lord,” Saul said. “I went on the mission the Lord assigned me. I destroyed the Amalekites and brought back Agag their king. The soldiers took sheep and cattle from the plunder, the best of what was devoted to God, to sacrifice them to the Lord your God at Gilgal.”

But Samuel replied:

“Does the Lord delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices
    as much as in obeying the Lord?
To obey is better than sacrifice,
    and to heed is better than the fat of rams.
For rebellion is like the sin of divination,
    and arrogance like the evil of idolatry.
Because you have rejected the word of the Lord,
    he has rejected you as king.”

Then Saul said to Samuel, “I have sinned. I violated the Lord’s command and your instructions. I was afraid of the men and so I gave in to them. Now I beg you, forgive my sin and come back with me, so that I may worship the Lord.”

But Samuel said to him, “I will not go back with you. You have rejected the word of the Lord, and the Lord has rejected you as king over Israel!”

As Samuel turned to leave, Saul caught hold of the hem of his robe, and it tore. Samuel said to him, “The Lord has torn the kingdom of Israel from you today and has given it to one of your neighbors—to one better than you. He who is the Glory of Israel does not lie or change his mind; for he is not a human being, that he should change his mind.”

Saul replied, “I have sinned. But please honor me before the elders of my people and before Israel; come back with me, so that I may worship the Lord your God.” So, Samuel went back with Saul, and Saul worshiped the Lord. (NIV)

“You cannot compensate by sacrifice what you lose through disobedience.”

edwin louis cole

God had given Saul explicit instructions on how to handle a group of people called the Amalekites (the first nation to attack the Jewish people after the Exodus from Egypt, and viewed as the archetypal enemy of the Jews). Saul obeyed only some of the instructions, but not all of them. King Saul rationalized his behavior as worship. But God would have none of it. The Lord rejected Saul as king. God wants no monkey business when it comes to obedience.

Whenever I come across biblical characters like Saul, I find myself trying to distance from them. Yet, oftentimes, when I take the time to sit a bit with the Scriptures, I realize I can have some of the same propensities as their behavior. In today’s Old Testament lesson, I am like Saul whenever:

  • I say I will do something and then get busy and not do it. I sometimes rationalize my lack of follow through by explaining what good things I was doing with my time instead.
  • I justify a purchase of something I do not really need but want with the excuse that I put a lot of money in the offering plate for God.
  • I slander another person, even though it is forbidden by God, with the knucklehead notion that I am protecting and helping others from that person’s evil ways.
  • I keep quiet in the face of a bad situation when I should be speaking up. I dismiss the lack of engagement and involvement with needing to save my energy for people who want it….

I could have kept going with this little exercise, but I got too convicted to keep thinking about it anymore. So, before we get too uppity about saying we are not like Saul and would never be like him, perhaps we ought to sit with the story for a while, being mindful and aware of any unacknowledged disobedience.

Rationalization is the way of sinners.  Repentance is the path of saints.  Which road will you choose today?

Holy God, you expect obedience to clear instructions.  I am sorry for all those times I found creative ways to circumvent your teaching.  Help me not to avoid your good commands, but to own them with vigor and vitality through Jesus Christ my Lord in the power of your Holy Spirit.  Amen.