Ezekiel 36:24-28 – I Will Give You A New Heart

New Heart by Ginnie Johansen Johnson

I will take you from the nations, I will gather you from all the countries, and I will bring you to your own fertile land. I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be cleansed of all your pollution. I will cleanse you of all your idols. I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you. I will remove your stony heart from your body and replace it with a living one, and I will give you my spirit so that you may walk according to my regulations and carefully observe my case laws. Then you will live in the land that I gave to your ancestors, you will be my people, and I will be your God. (CEB)

Every time I read these Old Testament verses from the prophet Ezekiel I am reminded of my time as chaplain on two cardiac intensive care units. I had several occasions to follow patients through the process of a heart transplant. I sat with them as they wondered if they would ever get a new one, as their own heart could no longer sustain the rest of their life. Would they die before receiving one? What would happen to their families?

Then, finally the day came for many (unfortunately, not all) there is a heart for them. After the incredible transplant surgery, joy abounds, knowing there is a new lease on life, a fresh experience. Through weeks or months of waiting and flirting with the Grim Reaper of death, hope is realized. Their old useless heart now replaced with a vibrant one, full of life!

However, the process is not yet over. Typically, about two or three days into possessing this new heart, a new realization comes along with it: Someone else had to die so that I could live….

He personally carried our sins
    in his body on the cross
so that we can be dead to sin
    and live for what is right.
By his wounds
    you are healed. (1 Peter 2:24, NLT)

Life comes from death. Resurrection can only happen when there is a crucifixion. Gaining a new spiritual heart has been achieved at the greatest of costs. “I will” is uttered nine times by God in five verses of Ezekiel’s prophecy. In gracious acts of determination to restore fallen people, God makes promises and has the authority and power to back them up. Our new heart is waiting to be animated by God’s Spirit so that our observance of God’s law is infused with divine might. Our consent to surgery is all that is needed.

Consider just a few of the great “I will” statements of Holy Scripture:

“I will instruct you and teach you in the way you should go; I will counsel you with my loving eye on you.” (Psalm 32:8, NIV)

“If someone trusts me, I will save them.
    I will protect my followers who call to me for help.
When my followers call to me, I will answer them.
    I will be with them when they are in trouble.
    I will rescue them and honor them.
I will give my followers a long life
    and show them my power to save.” (Psalm 91:14-16, ERV)

“I will strengthen you; I will help you; I will uphold you with my victorious right hand.” (Isaiah 41:10, NRSV)

“Call to me and I will answer you and tell you great and unsearchable things you do not know.” (Jeremiah 33:3, NIV)

“I will never leave you nor forsake you.” (Hebrews 13:5, NKJV)

May Christ make his home in your heart as you trust in him.

May your spiritual roots grow down deep into God’s love and keep you strong.

May you have the power to grasp, along with all God’s people, how wide, how long, how high, and how deep is the love of God.

May you experience the love of Christ, though it is too great to understand fully.

May you be made complete with all the fullness of life and power that comes from God.

May your new heart pump with the grace of Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the encouragement of the Spirit. Amen.

Psalm 85:1-2, 8-13 – Giving the Good

Psalm 85 by American artist John August Swanson

Lord, you were favorable to your land;
    you restored the fortunes of Jacob.
You forgave the iniquity of your people;
    you pardoned all their sin….

Let me hear what God the Lord will speak,
    for he will speak peace to his people,
    to his faithful, to those who turn to him in their hearts.
Surely his salvation is at hand for those who fear him,
    that his glory may dwell in our land.

Steadfast love and faithfulness will meet;
    righteousness and peace will kiss each other.
Faithfulness will spring up from the ground,
    and righteousness will look down from the sky.
The Lord will give what is good,
    and our land will yield its increase.
Righteousness will go before him,
    and will make a path for his steps. (NRSV)

Steadfast love, faithfulness, righteousness, and peace are terms which all spiritual folks need to be familiar with as well as experience. Steadfast love and faithfulness have its ground in God’s chesed, the divine covenant loyalty and kindness which always holds on, even despite people’s fickle commitment. Righteousness and peace are primarily relational terms which communicate a harmonious way of being with others and all creation.

This psalm says God will give exactly what the people have prayed for. It is a blessing given by the Lord to those who long for wholeness, integrity, and unhindered connection with God and God’s creation. And it is in the metaphors surrounding the words which give us such a beautiful picture of the blessing realized.

This is neither a general nor generic blessing from God Almighty. It is personal. In the grand immensity of the universe, the Creator God bends and condescends not only to all humanity but also to the individual. God’s steadfast love and faithfulness will meet to bless you and me. The Lord will come alongside and conform a divine blessing to our life. God’s grace will stick to us like glue in the form of right relationships and unity.

All of God’s attributes and character shall work in a seamless whole to bring divine acceptance and assistance to our lives. The good news here is that our struggles to be right and live right amidst terrible conditions of pandemics and people’s petulance have a vindication of divine sanction and enablement.

So, take a big breath and exhale, allowing the worries and anxieties of adverse situations to be expelled from our weary spirits. The Lord will give what is good. Today’s psalm is a wonderful reminder that salvation is not limited to a coming life; it is also deliverance in this present world we inhabit, basking in the Lord’s love and shalom and enjoying the good gifts God wants to give us right now.

Gracious God speak peace to your people. Through your Son, the Lord Jesus, we turn to you in our hearts, knowing your steadfast love and faithfulness, your righteousness and peace goes before us, with us, and behind us. In Christ, our salvation is at hand. May we reflect your goodness, as we respond to you with heart, soul, mind, and strength. This we pray in the name of the One who is your peace, your salvation—Jesus Christ. Amen.

Psalm 133 – The Blessing of Unity and Harmony

Ascend to Jerusalem by Dan Livni
“Ascend to Jerusalem” by Dan Livni

Oh, how wonderful, how pleasing it is
when God’s people all come together as one!
It is like the sweet-smelling oil that is poured over the high priest’s head,
that runs down his beard flowing over his robes.
It is like a gentle rain from Mount Hermon falling on Mount Zion.
It is there that the Lord has promised his blessing of eternal life. (ERV)

Unity, solidarity, and harmony are a beautiful blessing. Disunity, division, and fragmentation are an ugly curse. Within all families and faith communities are a diverse bunch of people – which brings the potential of both wonderful fellowship and disagreeing fights.

Today’s reading is a psalm of ascent. It is one of a group of psalms the Israelites would say and sing together as they made their pilgrimage to Jerusalem and ascended the temple mount to worship the Lord. Their common purpose and shared experience led to a blessed unity among all the worshipers.

The metaphors the psalm uses are meant to convey the feeling and impact of a unified people’s blessing as one harmonious bunch. The reference to oil communicates abundance and extravagant blessing beyond expectation. The gentle rain or the dew pictures the giving of life to a parched landscape. The psalm is a celebration of life’s simple pleasures, enjoyed with friends and family.

People created in the image of God are hard-wired for community. Rather than existing in isolation, doing our own thing, and keeping to ourselves, the Lord’s intention for humans is to be close enough to one another to rejoice with those experiencing joy and to weep with those mourning a loss. True community requires unity and harmony.

To live in harmony with one another means we regard everyone the same way by not playing favorites, being condescending, or giving more weight to one group more than another. It is a willingness to interact, work, and play with all kinds of people – not just those whom we like or help us get ahead in life. We are designed by our Creator to live and work together in common purposes. In fact, it takes a great deal of effort.

Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love.  Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace (Ephesians 4:2-3, NIV).

Think about what we have in Christ: the encouragement he has brought us, the comfort of his love, our sharing in his Spirit, and the mercy and kindness he has shown us. If you enjoy these blessings, then do what will make my joy complete: Agree with each other and show your love for each other. Be united in your goals and in the way you think. In whatever you do, do not let selfishness or pride be your guide. Be humble, and honor others more than yourselves. Do not be interested only in your own life, but care about the lives of others too (Philippians 2:1-4, ERV). 

If we desire the enjoyment of blessed relationships we will engage in genuine conversation, focused listening, and equal dialogue; simply stating opinions at each other will not do the trick.

Yes, we are to work at unity and harmony because we can have a nasty tendency to think better of ourselves than what is true, and of others what is not so good.  We might inflate our positive qualities and abilities, especially in comparison to other people.  Numerous research studies have revealed the propensity to overestimate ourselves.

For example, when one research study asked a million high school students how well they got along with their peers, none of the students rated themselves below average. As a matter of fact, 60% of students believed they were in the top 10%; and, 25% rated themselves in the top 1%.

College professors were just as biased about their abilities – 2% rated themselves below average; 10% were average and 63% were above average, while 25% rated themselves as truly exceptional. Of course, this is statistically impossible. One researcher summarized the data this way: “It’s the great contradiction: the average person believes he is a better person than the average person.”

Christian psychologist Mark McMinn contends that this study reveals our pride. He writes, “One of the clearest conclusions of social science research is that we are proud. We think better of ourselves than we really are, we see our faults in faint black and white rather than in vivid color, and we assume the worst in others while assuming the best in ourselves.”

Where sinful pride rules, disharmony runs amok within a community. The acid test of harmonious love is how we treat the lowly. One of the great preachers in church history, St. John Chrysostom (the fourth century Bishop of Constantinople) had this to say:

“If a poor man comes into your church behave like him and do not put on airs because of your riches.  In Christ there is no rich or poor.  Do not be ashamed of him because of his outward dress but receive him because of his inward faith.  If you see him in sorrow, do not hesitate to comfort him, and if he is prospering, do not feel shy about sharing in his pleasure.  If you think you are a great person, then think others are also.  If you think they are humble and lowly, then think the same of yourself.”

We cannot function apart from harmony. Consider a tuning fork. It delivers a true pitch by two tines vibrating together. Muffle either side, even a little, and the note disappears. Neither tine individually produces the pure note. Only when both tines vibrate is the correct pitch heard.  Harmony is not a matter of give and take and compromise to make each other happy or satisfied.  Harmony comes through a common mission and purpose which engages in shared experiences of loving and caring for others.

My Christian convictions and tradition tell me that the Word of God is applied by the Spirit of God through the people of God.  We are to embrace community.  We are to do life together.  We are to view everyone as my brother or sister. After all, we are our brother’s keeper.

So, let us ascend the hill of the Lord together. Let us worship God together with glad and sincere hearts. Let us be mindful of all our brothers and sisters, no matter who they are.

 

Psalm 105:1-6, 16-22, 45 – On Divine Providence

Egyptian workers harvesting grain c1420BCE
Egyptian workers harvesting grain. From the tomb of Mena in Thebes, c.1420 B.C.E.

Give thanks to the Lord and proclaim his greatness.
Let the whole world know what he has done.
Sing to him; yes, sing his praises.
Tell everyone about his wonderful deeds.
Exult in his holy name;
rejoice, you who worship the Lord.
Search for the Lord and for his strength;
continually seek him.
Remember the wonders he has performed,
his miracles, and the rulings he has given,
you children of his servant Abraham,
you descendants of Jacob, his chosen ones….

He called for a famine on the land of Canaan,
cutting off its food supply.
Then he sent someone to Egypt ahead of them—
Joseph, who was sold as a slave.
They bruised his feet with fetters
and placed his neck in an iron collar.
Until the time came to fulfill his dreams,
the Lord tested Joseph’s character.
Then Pharaoh sent for him and set him free;
the ruler of the nation opened his prison door.
Joseph was put in charge of all the king’s household;
he became ruler over all the king’s possessions.
He could instruct the king’s aides as he pleased
and teach the king’s advisers….

All this happened so they would follow his decrees
and obey his instructions.

Praise the Lord! (NLT)

Our spiritual and emotional vision can sometimes be myopic. It is precisely in those times when we have tunnel vision and neither look back to a past in which God acted with justice nor see ahead to a future with hope that we must remember God is supreme over everything, including time.

God’s providence and blessing is the animating force behind all events. The biblical character of Joseph is Exhibit A of God’s sovereign backstage orchestration of personal and world forces. Joseph’s story of brotherly betrayal, bondage, imprisonment, and rise to power include some lessons for us (Genesis 37-41):

  • Joseph is portrayed as a model of wisdom for us to follow.

Respect and obey the Lord! This is the beginning of knowledge. Only a fool rejects wisdom and good advice (Proverbs 1:7, CEV).  

Do not let mercy and truth leave you. Fasten them around your neck. Write them on the tablet of your heart. Then you will find favor and much success in the sight of God and humanity (Proverbs 3:3-4, GW).

  • Joseph did not know the end of the story while he was in the middle of it, languishing in prison. Little did he know that God was testing his character, training him to listen well, and preparing him for his eventual leadership in Egypt – all to save many lives from hunger and starvation.

Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. (Hebrews 11:1, NRSV)

  • Joseph successfully negotiated and navigated a world which was vastly different from his own religion and ethics. He was determined not to give in to the seductions of women and power around him; and, he did not become bitter against his brothers, nor against the Egyptians.

Don’t love the world’s ways. Don’t love the world’s goods. Love of the world squeezes out love for the Father. Practically everything that goes on in the world—wanting your own way, wanting everything for yourself, wanting to appear important—has nothing to do with the Father. It just isolates you from him. The world and all its wanting, wanting, wanting is on the way out—but whoever does what God wants is set for eternity. (1 John 2:15-17, MSG)

Four-hundred years later, Moses also had to navigate the situation of being an Israelite in the world of Egypt, and walked in the footsteps of his forebear, Joseph:

By faith Moses, when he had grown up, refused to be known as the son of Pharaoh’s daughter.  He chose to be mistreated along with the people of God rather than to enjoy the pleasures of sin for a short time.  He regarded disgrace for the sake of Christ as of greater value than the treasures of Egypt because he was looking ahead to his reward. (Hebrews 11:24-26, NIV)

We understand, knowing the end of the story, that Joseph was in Egypt (in the world) to be a blessing and that God had him there for a purpose. This is no less true for the people of God. We do not exist merely for ourselves but to be a blessing to the world.  God, as he did for Joseph, shows us mercy while we are smack in the middle of hardship and not by taking us out of our worldly predicament.  Life must sometimes be lived at great risk amid the world and not apart from it.

Seen from a strictly worldly perspective, Joseph’s time in slavery and prison was an unnecessary injustice. However, from God’s vantage point, Joseph was learning to be mindful of God despite his circumstances. For the Lord is much more concerned about the process we undergo in spiritual formation, rather than simply producing a product at the end of the line. Most of life is lived in the mundane, and Joseph was faithful in all the workaday decisions and demands of life. This made him able to handle all the vicissitudes of others in their fickle and feckless ways and see God’s providential working.

Lord God, you hold both heaven and earth in a single peace. Let the design of your great love shine on the waste of our anger and sorrow, and give peace to your Church, peace among nations, peace in our homes, and peace in our hearts through Jesus Christ our Lord who with you and the Holy Spirit benevolently reign as one God, now and forever. Amen.