Joshua 8:30-35 – Recall the Ancient Ways

One day, Joshua led the people of Israel to Mount Ebal, where he told some of his men, “Build an altar for offering sacrifices to the Lord. And use stones that have never been cut with iron tools, because that is what Moses taught in The Book of the Law.”

Joshua offered sacrifices to please the Lord and to ask his blessing. Then with the Israelites still watching, he copied parts of The Book of the Law of Moses onto stones.

Moses had said that everyone in Israel was to go to the valley between Mount Ebal and Mount Gerizim, where they were to be blessed. So, everyone went there, including the foreigners, the leaders, officials, and judges. Half of the people stood on one side of the valley, and half on the other side, with the priests from the Levi tribe standing in the middle with the sacred chest. Then in a loud voice, Joshua read the blessings and curses from The Book of the Law of Moses. (CEV)

The ancient Israelites were in the Promised Land. Finally! It was quite the circuitous journey to get to this point. It might have been easy to kick back and celebrate. However, Joshua, their leader, knew there was a prerequisite to jubilation. First, the tone had to be set for how they were going to live and be as the inhabitants of this land.

So, Joshua gathered the entire nation and copied God’s Law in front of them, as given to Moses from God. Then, in the hearing of all the people, Joshua read the attitudes, activities, and attributes which would bring them ongoing blessing, as well as the behaviors which would bring a curse.

Joshua’s work is paradigmatic for us. Just as Moses received the Law from God and read it to the people; and, then, did it again just before the people started their campaign to enter the land, so Joshua followed his mentor’s lead and did the same. Reminders of God’s work and faithfulness, recollecting God’s gracious commands, and renewing our vows to God are all significant and ongoing works for every generation to emulate.

Why, pray tell, must we engage in such a ritual repeatedly? For two reasons: we tend to forget the things we are supposed to remember; and performing a practice again and again helps press it into our minds and hearts. This is precisely why I am a believer in liturgical worship and following the Christian Year. The redemptive events of Jesus become more than doctrines to believe; they are grafted into the soul by the sheer repetition of practice.

Part of the reason why so many Christian evangelicals have fled the Church is that they received no catechetical instruction again and again through time honored methods of worship and instruction. So, when they left, it was as if there was nothing to leave – it was easy. With little awareness of the great inheritance they possess in the faith, many persons have scant knowledge that what they are leaving is a rich historical tradition with the very things they are searching for but never received.

Oh, my goodness, people of God, it behooves us to pass on the faith in ways which both make sense and are true to the ancient way of the commandments, our apostolic tradition, and of Christ. It will do no good to disparage history, as if it began with Billy Graham. If folks are going to walk away, let them do it with the full cognizance of what they are walking away from. I cannot say I could blame anyone for leaving an eviscerated faith that is no faith, at all.

This very blog is partly dedicated to following the Revised Common Lectionary because it is the continual cycle of following Christ daily and yearly which patiently and profoundly constructs the soul over time.

Psychology as a discipline was established in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries largely because of a grand collective loss of memory amongst so many people. Psychological studies vigorously investigated the reason why this phenomenon was so ubiquitous.

It is also noteworthy that the great rise in secularism over the past few centuries before the 1800’s, found an apex at this same time with the introduction of psychology as a bona fide academic discipline. If humanity was meant for living in consistent rhythms of life and faith, then it makes sense that, when taken away, what remains is a massive societal memory loss with large implications for the individual.

We must reverse the curse of sacred memory loss and confusion of mind (Deuteronomy 28:28). We ought to recapture the mind, heart, and spirit for their intended purpose and design. We need metaphysicians who will do the important work of soul craft and bring blessings yet again to the world. There is some urgency to mentoring others in the faith, as the Apostle Paul did with his young protégé Timothy:

“You have heard my message, and it’s been confirmed by many witnesses. Entrust this message to faithful individuals who will be competent to teach others.” (2 Timothy 2:2, GW)

Spiritual care and connection are not optional – they are a necessity we cannot live without. A spiritual cultivation and tending of the soul have positive effects on our stress and overall well-being. Spirituality brings health and vitality to our psychosocial selves and reinforces integrity and excellence in relating to others.

So, let us not jettison the important work of tending the soul through ancient practices of breathing, reading, reflecting, contemplating, praying, worshiping, and applying the work of Christ to our world’s greatest issues and needs.

Almighty and everlasting God, in Christ you have revealed your glory among the nations: Preserve the works of your mercy, that your Church throughout the world may persevere with steadfast faith in the confession of your Name; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

James 4:4-10 – The Jilted Lover

You adulterous people, don’t you know that friendship with the world means enmity against God? Therefore, anyone who chooses to be a friend of the world becomes an enemy of God. Or do you think Scripture says without reason that he jealously longs for the spirit he has caused to dwell in us? But he gives us more grace. That is why Scripture says:

“God opposes the proud
    but shows favor to the humble.”

Submit yourselves, then, to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Come near to God and he will come near to you. Wash your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded. Grieve, mourn, and wail. Change your laughter to mourning and your joy to gloom. Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will lift you up. (NIV)

Apparently, the Apostle James was not trying to win friends. But he was trying to influence people, specifically those who are proud. So, please understand from the outset that James was going tough after haughty persons because it takes a hammer to break a hard heart. And so, his approach ought only to be emulated in the unique context of handling persons stuck in their own destructive hubris. Nevertheless, there is much instruction in these verses to help us all.

Throughout the Bible, a marriage metaphor is used to liken the relationship of God to the people much like a lover. God’s covenant relationship is at the heart of understanding the whole of Scripture. Whenever people stray from divine promises, God is offended and hurt. 

Yes, God feels pain. God is an emotional Being, which is why we have emotions as God’s image-bearers. One way to view the Bible is that it is a book about God, the jilted lover. The Lord set affection and love upon people, yet many people have spurned their lover’s advance. And this situation pains God. 

When Adam and Eve, decided to find satisfaction outside of God, the Lord was hurt. When people went on to have children and raise them, they did so largely apart from the God who loved them. People strayed so far from God that it caused pain:

The Lord saw that the human beings on the earth were very wicked and that everything they thought about was evil. He was sorry he had made human beings on the earth, and his heart was filled with pain. (Genesis 6:5-6, NCV).

Yet, God was gracious. The Lord took a group of Noah’s descendants, Abraham’s family, and set a covenant affection on them. God hoped to restore the world to right relationship through the Israelites. However, they too, came to set their affections on others. So, nearly half of the Old Testament is devoted to communicating the Lord’s hurt and disappointment. 

Like a jilted lover, God longed for Israel to remain faithful. The prophecy of Hosea is a case in point. Hosea had an unfaithful wife, Gomer, and their relationship mirrored the relationship between God and Israel. Just as Hosea did not give up on his wife, even though she was brazenly unfaithful, so God looked at Israel as a spouse and could not bear to give her up.

Israel spurned their lover’s grace and kindness and actively sought other lovers, causing God anger and agony. Through the prophet Ezekiel, God recounted the history of unfaithfulness:

“At every crossroad you built your platform and degraded your beauty by spreading your legs to all comers. And so, you encouraged even more promiscuity. You prostituted yourself with the Egyptians, your neighbors with the large sexual organs, and as you added to your seductions, you provoked me to anger…. Still not satisfied, you prostituted yourself to the Assyrians, but they were not enough for you either. So, you prostituted yourself with the Babylonians, the land of traders, but again you were not satisfied. How sick was your heart that you could do all these things, the deeds of a hardened prostitute?… You are like an adulterous wife: you take in strangers instead of your husband. Ordinary prostitutes are given gifts, but you gave your gifts to all your lovers. From every direction you even bribed them to come to you for your sexual favors. As a prostitute, you were more perverse than other women. No one approached you for sexual favors, but you yourself gave gifts instead of receiving them.” (Ezekiel 16:25-34, CEB)

Despite Israel’s unfaithfulness, God extended grace to the beloved spouse:

“I am taking you back!
I rejected you for a while,
but with love and tenderness
    I will embrace you again.
For a while, I turned away
    in furious anger.
Now I will have mercy
    and love you forever!
I, your protector and Lord,
    make this promise.” (Isaiah 54:6-8, CEV)

The Old Testament ends with God still longing for return:

The Lord proclaims: “I care passionately about Zion; I burn with passion for her.” (Zechariah 8:2, CEB)

All this theological awareness was in the heart of James when he wrote his letter to the hard-hearted. He knew they were flirting with the world and wanted them to stop and return to the God who longed to show them grace, if they only would but humble themselves.

God yearns, passionately, for us to find our needs met, and enjoyment found, in the loving divine embrace. Spiritual adultery hurts God deeply, like it would any jilted lover. God awaits with loving patience to show grace and compassion to wayward people. 

Only the stance and attitude of humility can receive grace. Pride and hubris prevent people from receiving God’s good gift. So, the Apostle James rattled-off ten quick staccato commands to remain connected in a love relationship with God.  We might frame these as resolutions to live by. 

  1. Submit to God.

Humble folk willingly place themselves under God’s authority because they are convinced God has their best interests at mind. One temptation when facing adversity is to entertain the belief that no one is going to look out for you except yourself. So, to avoid getting hurt too badly, we might become cynical, arrogant, and callous – self-protective strategies designed to keep the hurt away. This only creates hardness of heart. The alternative is faithful submission to God – knowing that God’s Spirit will protect and living with the conviction that nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ.

2. Resist the devil.

Satan is a bully. The way to deal with bullies is to stand up to them. We face down the temptation. Notice that James says we submit to God and resist the devil. We are not to be deceived into flipping it around by listening to Satan and avoiding submission to God.

3. Come near to God.

Like a loving parent, the Lord longingly looks out the window waiting for prodigals to return. Coming to God is the first thing we ought to do. When my daughter was young her bike was stolen. So, we sat down together in the backyard and came to God in prayer. I barely finished praying when a police cruiser pulled up in the alley behind our house. The policeman rolled down his window and said, “Hey, are you missing a bike?”  We hopped in and he took us to where someone had ditched the bike. It was a tremendous lesson that when we come to God, God comes to us. I realize life does not always work that way, yet we can be assured that God listens, hears, and will respond.

4. Wash our hands.

We cannot approach God with blood on our hands. We must come to God squarely facing our sin and disobedience.  We must deal with the wrong we have done without sweeping it under the rug. God wants us to admit our sin, receive grace, and deal with matters of restitution and reconciliation, without trying to save face when found out in a concern for “optics.”

5. Purify our hearts.

Whereas the previous resolution is mostly external, this one addresses the inner person, the heart. Not only do our actions need to be cleaned up through washing our hands, our attitudes must be purged of pollution. Our hearts cannot handle two masters. We are meant to be single-minded without mixed motives. There is an African proverb which says, “The man who tries to walk two roads will split his pants.” 

The next four resolutions describe important emotional responses to sin….

6. Grieve.

Trying to move on without grieving and lamenting is called denial. Grief is not only an event; it is a process which takes time. Grieving is biblical. Sharing our stories with each other, giving testimony to God’s grace, and expressing ourselves is important. A loving God knows there cannot be healing apart from grief and lament.

7. Mourn.

Blessed are those who mourn (Matthew 5:4). Mourning the emotional response to devastation of sin, and how much we need God.  It is to see sin in all its foulness and degradation. People who do not mourn are or become hard-hearted and need deep spiritual transformation. Jesus offers the remedy: By his wounds we are healed.

8. Wail.

We are to cry – more than cry – to wail.  Whereas mourning might be more private and personal, wailing has a much more public dimension to it. I believe the great tragedy in many modern churches is an inordinate focus on victory and triumphalism. The result: Far too many Christians cry alone. No one should ever have to cry by themselves. We must weep with those who weep. If there ever was an appropriate place for crying, it should be amongst fellow brothers and sisters in Christ.

9. Change.

We cannot turn the clock back to some bygone idyllic era. We are to grasp the type of change which occurs in living for Jesus Christ and above sin. In other words, no casual cavalier attitudes toward sin. I once had a conversation with a young woman about heaven and hell. When we began the discussion, she expressed a desire to be wherever the better party going on. By the time we finished our conversation she was grieving, mourning, and crying. I never knew what became of her – I even forget her name now. But once she got just a glimpse of the gravity of sin, it undid her.

10. Be humble.

Humility sums up all these resolutions. The paradox is that through grieving, mourning, and wailing we become joyful and satisfied; through suffering there is glory; becoming last is to become first; entering the narrow gate leads to the broad open space of God’s eternal life.

Gracious God, our sins are too heavy to carry, too real to hide, and too deep to undo. Forgive what our lips tremble to name, what our hearts can no longer bear, and what has become for us a consuming fire of judgment. Set us free from a past that we cannot change; open to us a future in which we can be changed; and grant us grace to grow more and more in your likeness and image, through Jesus Christ, the light of the world. Amen.

Genesis 31:1-21 – On the Move

Jacob and Laban by Jean Restout
Jacob and Laban by French artist Jean Restout (1692-1768)

Jacob heard that Laban’s sons were saying, “Jacob has taken everything our father owned and has gained all this wealth from what belonged to our father.” And Jacob noticed that Laban’s attitude toward him was not what it had been.

Then the Lord said to Jacob, “Go back to the land of your fathers and to your relatives, and I will be with you.”

So, Jacob sent word to Rachel and Leah to come out to the fields where his flocks were. He said to them, “I see that your father’s attitude toward me is not what it was before, but the God of my father has been with me. You know that I have worked for your father with all my strength, yet your father has cheated me by changing my wages ten times. However, God has not allowed him to harm me. If he said, ‘The speckled ones will be your wages,’ then all the flocks gave birth to speckled young; and if he said, ‘The streaked ones will be your wages,’ then all the flocks bore streaked young. So, God has taken away your father’s livestock and has given them to me.

“In breeding season, I once had a dream in which I looked up and saw that the male goats mating with the flock were streaked, speckled or spotted. The angel of God said to me in the dream, ‘Jacob.’ I answered, ‘Here I am.’ And he said, ‘Look up and see that all the male goats mating with the flock are streaked, speckled, or spotted, for I have seen all that Laban has been doing to you. I am the God of Bethel, where you anointed a pillar and where you made a vow to me. Now leave this land at once and go back to your native land.’”

Then Rachel and Leah replied, “Do we still have any share in the inheritance of our father’s estate? Does he not regard us as foreigners? Not only has he sold us, but he has used up what was paid for us. Surely all the wealth that God took away from our father belongs to us and our children. So do whatever God has told you.”

Then Jacob put his children and his wives on camels, and he drove all his livestock ahead of him, along with all the goods he had accumulated in Paddan Aram, to go to his father Isaac in the land of Canaan.

When Laban had gone to shear his sheep, Rachel stole her father’s household gods. Moreover, Jacob deceived Laban the Aramean by not telling him he was running away. So, he fled with all he had, crossed the Euphrates River, and headed for the hill country of Gilead. (NIV)

Moving and changing are inevitable. Change and movement are built into all creation, from the seasons of the year to our physical bodies. Some changes and moves we deem as good, and others, not so much. Yet, whether good or bad, any switch or shift in life can be difficult to cope with.

Whatever the circumstance, God stands behind everything, working out his purposes. There are times and seasons in our lives in which we can get lost in our own stories. Ultimately, however, our transitions from one place to another are much more about our individual stories fitting into the larger story of God. Whenever we are unable to see how our own story and the story of God fit together, it is an opportunity to exercise our faith and trust God. Listening to God and responding to his call to move and change will at times be difficult due to the uncertainty of our future.

In today’s Old Testament lesson, Jacob has served his father-in-law Laban for twenty years. Now, he hears the call of God to move. The principal actor and center of the story is not Jacob, but God.  The primary point of the narrative is a revelation of who God is, with Jacob as the supporting actor in the story. God was watching over and protecting Jacob. The Lord was following through on his promise given to Jacob’s grandfather, Abraham, to go to the land he would show him – to make Abraham into a great nation so that all people-groups on earth would be blessed through him.  So, this story of Jacob is one piece in the unfolding drama of God’s redemption which would ultimately find its fulfillment in the person and work of Jesus.

Jacob had in-law issues. His relationship with his father-in-law was morphing into trouble. Laban’s attitude had changed toward his son-in-law, probably due to Jacob’s increasing wealth, and Laban’s decreasing assets. So, God showed up and told Jacob to return to the land of his fathers. Along with the call to make a change came a promise of God’s continued presence with Jacob. The grace given to Abraham when calling him out of Ur was renewed with more grace when calling Jacob back to the land of his father and grandfather.  It is in God’s nature to be gracious and to heap grace upon grace.

Jacob Fleeing Laban by Filippo Lauri
Jacob Fleeing Laban by Italian painter Filippo Lauri (1623-1694)

Jacob heeded call of the Lord and began laying plans to move back to Canaan. But how to tell his family about this? What are his wives going to say? After all, he is talking about moving away with kids and teenagers still in the tent. So, with some anxiety, Jacob called his wives, Rachel and Leah, out to the fields to talk.  Jacob laid out the story of himself and Laban, which he framed more as a contrasting story between God and Laban:

Laban’s attitude changed – God’s attitude does not change. God is not fickle.

Laban was unreliable, reneging on promises – God is reliable and trustworthy, keeping his promises.

Laban kept changing his mind – God stays the same, yesterday, today, and forever.

Laban saw only self-interest – God sees everyone and shows solidarity with the oppressed.

This same God is concerned for us and will not renege on his promises. God is providentially working out his agenda and concern for this earth, and we can bank on it.

The response from Jacob and Rachel to Laban was some tricky thievery. Jacob stealthily took his family and ran away from the situation. Rachel straight up stole Laban’s household gods. (Note: Old Testament narratives do not usually tell us whether something is bad or good but instead lets the story unfold and speak for itself so that we can see the ethics working itself out).  Jacob and Rachel had a less than stellar response to God’s grace. We do not know exactly what the household gods are, or why Rachel stole them. What we do know is that there was a bit of pagan practice mixed in with worship of the one, true God.

God wants to be our everything – the faithful, gracious, and present God – because God is good all the time. Our circumstances will forever be changing, and God may ask us to move and go do something somewhere else. Yet, no matter the situation and how different our surroundings may become, God does not change, and he is here with us; and, at the same time, is continually moving to accomplish his purposes.

Loving God, you have made the whole of human life in your image; each one of us shaped in love. Your goodness is ever-present within us all. Yet, there is so much evil and pain in our world; it comes at us from every direction. Teach us how to rediscover your love within us and to use that love as a force for good. Help us to turn our hearts toward the world in hope, praying for each other and regarding each other as a treasure. Join us all together in prayer so that we might be the light which darkness can never overcome, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Genesis 9:8-17 – I Will Remember

Then God said to Noah and to his sons with him: “I now establish my covenant with you and with your descendants after you and with every living creature that was with you—the birds, the livestock and all the wild animals, all those that came out of the ark with you—every living creature on earth. I establish my covenant with you: Never again will all life be destroyed by the waters of a flood; never again will there be a flood to destroy the earth.”

And God said, “This is the sign of the covenant I am making between me and you and every living creature with you, a covenant for all generations to come: I have set my rainbow in the clouds, and it will be the sign of the covenant between me and the earth. Whenever I bring clouds over the earth and the rainbow appears in the clouds, I will remember my covenant between me and you and all living creatures of every kind. Never again will the waters become a flood to destroy all life. Whenever the rainbow appears in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and all living creatures of every kind on the earth.”

So, God said to Noah, “This is the sign of the covenant I have established between me and all life on the earth.” (NIV)

The older I get the less I remember.  I tell my older parishioners when they have a “senior moment” that they have a lot more to remember from a lifetime of experiences and memories than everyone else does. My memory is now such that, if I do not write stuff down, it likely will not happen. On some level, I’m sure you can relate. We all have the common human experience of being forgetful.

Even though God is old, I don’t believe he has a problem with remembering. Yet, even God puts reminders in front of himself to remember. Most people, whether knowing much about the Bible, or not, are familiar with the story of Noah. You remember the story. The world was evil.  God decided to destroy the creatures of the earth because humanity was rife with wickedness. God sent a flood, but spared Noah and his family. Afterward, God made a covenant between himself and all the earth: He would never again send a calamitous flood, stating, “I have set my rainbow in the clouds, and it will be the sign of the covenant between me and the earth. Whenever I bring clouds over the earth and the rainbow appears in the clouds, I will remember my covenant between me and you.”

Maybe memory has less to do with actual forgetfulness and more with priority, commitment, and keeping something continually in front of us.  God did not set a rainbow in the sky because he was worried about a senior moment someday; he put a sign in the sky because having symbols that point to significant events are important, even for God.  We put pictures of our kids on our desks not because we will forget what they look like, but to keep them in front of us throughout the day because we love them.  We keep tokens from travels or vacations in prominent places at home not because we will ever forget the experience, but because something significant happened or was decided in that time that was important to us.

The objects and symbols we place around us have significance. Our predilection for having objective symbols comes from bearing the image and likeness of God. And, in some sense, we are all living icons, flesh and blood reminders of God’s creative work. When we choose to use our bodies and minds for good, we are living into our original design and tapping into the wondrous image within.

God wants us to remember – the Word of God, divine actions of old, and, most of all, the Son, which is why we have tangible symbols of bread and cup to remember the redemptive events of Jesus. Christ is to be continually in front of us, our priority, and our love as we live from day to day.

Soli Deo Gloria

Gracious God, you have made covenants with your people to remember and be committed to them.  I desire to remember you in everything I do and say, especially the Lord Jesus who loved me and gave himself for me so that my priorities will reflect your goodness, and your mercy will be shown. May I continually remember: churches everywhere throughout your world, that they may proclaim the risen Lord; creation, that the people of the earth may meet their responsibility to care; those in despair and darkness, that they may find the hope and light of Christ; and, those forgotten by others, but not forgotten by you; through Jesus Christ, I pray. Amen.