Isaiah 40:1-11 – Comfort for the Weary

The Shepherd by Indian artist P. Solomon Raj (1921-2019)

Comfort, comfort my people,
    says your God.
Speak tenderly to Jerusalem,
    and proclaim to her
that her hard service has been completed,
    that her sin has been paid for,
that she has received from the Lord’s hand
    double for all her sins.

A voice of one calling:
“In the wilderness prepare
    the way for the Lord;
make straight in the desert
    a highway for our God.
Every valley shall be raised up,
    every mountain and hill made low;
the rough ground shall become level,
    the rugged places a plain.
And the glory of the Lord will be revealed,
    and all people will see it together.
For the mouth of the Lord has spoken.”

A voice says, “Cry out.”
    And I said, “What shall I cry?”

“All people are like grass,
    and all their faithfulness is like the flowers of the field.
The grass withers and the flowers fall,
    because the breath of the Lord blows on them.
    Surely the people are grass.
The grass withers and the flowers fall,
    but the word of our God endures forever.”

You who bring good news to Zion,
    go up on a high mountain.
You who bring good news to Jerusalem,
    lift up your voice with a shout,
lift it up, do not be afraid;
    say to the towns of Judah,
    “Here is your God!”
See, the Sovereign Lord comes with power,
    and he rules with a mighty arm.
See, his reward is with him,
    and his recompense accompanies him.
He tends his flock like a shepherd:
    He gathers the lambs in his arms
and carries them close to his heart;
    he gently leads those that have young. (NIV)

As we journey through the Christian Year, we have spent the past twenty-five weeks in the longest season on the Church Calendar: ordinary or proper time. It is only appropriate that the dog days of summer and the bulk of autumn should be within this time.

Most of the Christian’s life is lived in the mundane yet necessary work of mission. Small and seemingly obscure acts of kindness, careful yet often discreet acts of love, and graciously chosen words of encouragement which may not be noticed by many are what mostly characterize the daily pilgrimage of faith.

I am sure the ancient Jewish people felt that, for an awfully long time, they were plodding along as faithfully as they could with often little to show for it. Yet, they knew it would not always be this way. God’s people anticipated that a time was coming when their pedantic service would see the light of day.

I am sure we, too, have times when it feels as if our prayers are only bouncing off the ceiling. In such times, words of comfort and assurance come as a breath of fresh air. When we least expect it, God speaks to us tenderly and with compassion. The Lord steps into our weariness and exhausting work and says, “Enough!”

Whereas our walk with God may often feel like trudging up and down hills, sloshing through muddy valleys, and traversing hard terrain, the proclamation of comfort assures us that it will not always be this way. The way to God will be made level so that we can connect with the Lord post haste.

No matter how much our worldly circumstances break us down, even shattering our expectations and dreams, we carry with us an unflagging vision of wholeness, integrity, and hope. God is our true home, our polestar, our ultimate destiny. Feeling displaced, out of sorts, or like we just do not belong are signs that we long for our place with God.

And when we find our home with God, all might be going to hell around us, yet we are buttressed and sustained by living divine words. For those with eyes to see, ears to hear, and hearts attuned to grace, there is John the Baptist, smoothing the highway to our Lord – preparing the way to Jesus. (Mark 1:1-4)

God, as both the warrior who powerfully fights our battles, and the shepherd who lovingly tends to our needs, firmly takes the initiative to bring us home, going out of the way to gently pick us up and carry us back to the place we belong.

The good news is that the world is changed by God. The world around us is no longer the way we thought it was or was supposed to be. Despair gives way to confident expectation, and discouragement is slowly replaced by consolation. The long exile is coming to an end. Jesus is coming soon. All will be made right; justice and peace will have the day.

Let your hearts be true and humble, as befits God’s holy reign. For the glory of the Lord is on the earth and will be from everlasting to everlasting.

Glory to God in the highest, and on earth, peace to people of goodwill. We praise you; we bless you; we adore you; we give thanks to you for your great glory. Amen.

Matthew 12:43-45 – True Repentance

Freedom by Zenos Frudakis in Philiadelphia, Pennsylvania

Jesus said, “When an evil spirit comes out of a person, it travels through dry places looking for a place to rest, but it finds none. So, it says, ‘I will go back to the home I left.’ When it comes back, it finds that home still empty. It is all neat and clean. Then the evil spirit goes out and brings seven other spirits more evil than itself. They all go and live there, and that person has even more trouble than before. It is the same way with the evil people who live today.” (ERV) 

Nature abhors a vacuum. A tilled plot of soil will be overtaken with weeds if nothing is planted and nurtured in the turned-over dirt. The pecking order of a brood of chickens cannot handle the death of the top hen without filling the position almost immediately. And, in the spiritual realm, the exorcising of a demon will not simply leave a person empty of evil – his/her life will be filled with something in its place. 

Today’s Gospel story, told by Jesus, about the man who is delivered from an unclean spirit, is a powerful and simple narrative on the necessity of true repentance. Genuine freedom is more than getting rid of something bad and destructive; the evil must be replaced with something good and useful. That is, biblical repentance is both a turning away from ungodliness and an embrace of righteousness.

We are delivered from evil so that we can start living into the righteousness and peace intended for us. 

For example, the Apostle Paul exhorted the Ephesian believers to not only stop stealing but also to get a job and start sharing with others. They were not only to stop lying and using their tongues for gossip and slander and start using their words to speak truth that builds up others. (Ephesians 4:25-32) 

The spiritual principle is the same as the nature principle: A empty vacuum will always be filled. The man who did not fill his life with God ended up having a problem with evil seven times greater than when he started. 

If anything, or anyone, is emptied of its unhealthy elements and practices, it is imperative that the hole be immediately filled with healthy disciplines for life. 

Whether dealing with addictions, bad habits, or any kind of evil influence, a two-pronged approach is needed for its eradication. We expel the evil by replacing it with godliness. The man struggling with pornography or adultery must not only stop the behavior but take up the mantle of being a champion for women’s issues. The woman who has no healthy boundaries and allows herself to be used and abused must not only separate from the problem or person but adopt her identity in Christ as a precious child of God and enforce righteous limitations.   

None of these examples are meant to be simplistic answers to complex situations. Rather, they illustrate why so many people do not experience freedom and continue to have even greater enslavement to their passions and sufferings. 

Freedom is realized through replacing old practices with new disciplines that directly attack the old. 

We all have needs. How we get those needs met is often a mixed bag of both legitimate and illegitimate ways. In a perfect world, everyone would be aware of their needs and be able to express them to one another without shame, anxiety, or anger. Since we live on a blemished fallen planet, we end up trying to meet our needs indirectly through hustling for love, hoarding resources, and controlling others – all harmful ways which destroys souls and relationships. 

So, unless we focus on positively meeting our needs, we must go a step beyond dropping a toxic relationship, cutting up a credit card, or saying “no” to another responsibility. We often get into our mess to begin with because we are out of touch with ourselves and our needs. We need affection and encouragement, and there is no shame in needing this. We need security and safety, and there is no problem in acquiring this. There are some things we need to control, and that is okay. 

If we fail to address our needs, we might do the necessary work of deliverance, then turn right around and become worse off than before by filling the empty place of our lives with:  

  • Being all things to all people, as if we were the Messiah.  
  • Being successful so that we stay ahead of being needy.  
  • Pulling inside ourselves and trusting nobody.  
  • Distancing from our needs and pretending they are not there.  
  • Being continually vigilant so that we are never hurt that way again.  
  • Keeping a positive spin on everything, as if there is no negative stuff in the world.  
  • Challenging other’s opinions and behaviors to keep the focus off our needs.  
  • Becoming a wallflower so that we can never be the brunt of someone else’s vitriol or evil. 

Instead, we can let Jesus fill the emptiness with love, purpose, peace, joy, attention, and grace. Christ is the Savior who delivers us from evil, and the Holy Spirit is the Sanctifier who carefully applies the work of salvation to our lives.

When our hearts and minds are full of God, there is no place for the demons to get in. 

True repentance equally forsakes evil and embraces righteousness; replaces the unhealthy with the healthy; jettisons the illegitimate and seeks the legitimate; and puts away unnecessary suffering and pursues peace and joy in the Spirit.  

O God, I no longer want to live with saying I’m sorry and going right back to the old pig slop of sin. I cannot change on my own.  I need Jesus to both take away the sin and give me a new life of living for him.  Lead me not into temptation but deliver me from evil Help me to make choices that put to death the old way of life, and the courage to live into my forgiveness in the power of the Holy Spirit. Amen. 

Matthew 6:7-15 – The Lord’s Prayer

The Lord's Prayer

And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.

This, then, is how you should pray:

“Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name,
your kingdom come,
your will be done,
    on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us today our daily bread.
And forgive us our debts,
    as we also have forgiven our debtors.
And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one.”

For if you forgive other people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins. (NIV)

God knows what we need before we even ask him, which means that the Creator of the universe has his ear inclined to listen to us. The Lord desires, even longs for us to pray to him. Since this is God’s disposition every day, Jesus communicated to us a model way of prayer. This prayer exemplifies the values of Christ’s Beatitudes and reflects the priorities of God’s kingdom. The Lord’s Prayer is meant to be prayed often, mindfully, and with flavor.

Jesus gave us six petitions to guide us in our prayers: The first three petitions are priorities of God that set the tone for the next three petitions, which are centered in our problems of living in this fallen world.

Addressing God

Jesus gave us instruction of how to address God: “Our Father in heaven.” All the pronouns in the Lord’s Prayer are plural, not singular. We are to be concerned for both our own individual issues, and for the needs of the community, of the problems and situations of the world.

“Father” is an endearing and relational word. “In heaven” balances the closeness and nearness of our heavenly Father with his sovereign and transcendent nature. Our God is both near and far – a close friend as well as a holy king.  So, we address him with a proper understanding of who he is.

Three Priorities

  1. First Petition: “Hallowed be your name.”

“Hallow” comes from the root word for holiness; it is to sanctify, to set apart. God is concerned that his creatures revere him and treat him as the Holy One.

Notice the use of the verb: not hallowed “is” your name, but hallowed, or holy “be” your name. That is, Jesus guides us to pray that God’s name would be shown as holy through us by the way we live. The world sees a holy God when his people walk in holiness, reflecting his benevolent nature.

After Christ’s resurrection and ascension, the Apostle Peter encouraged a struggling band of young Christians:

So, you must live as God’s obedient children. Don’t slip back into your old ways of living to satisfy your own desires. You didn’t know any better back then. But now you must be holy in everything you do, just as God who chose you is holy. For the Scriptures say, “You must be holy because I am holy.” And remember that the heavenly Father to whom you pray has no favorites. He will judge or reward you according to what you do. So, you must live in reverence of him during your time here as “temporary residents.” (1 Peter 1:14-17, NLT)

  1. Second Petition: “Your kingdom come.”

We live in a fallen world that has come under the domain of dark forces. The unfolding drama of Holy Scripture is that God himself is on a mission to restore his creation to a benevolent rule and gracious reign. Jesus is the King, we are the subjects, and God’s realm exists wherever his subjects go.  And where his subjects go, they are to pierce the darkness by embodying the good news that King Jesus has overcome the demonic realm and brought us into God’s kingdom. The prayer and proclamation of this good news is of utmost priority to God.

  1. Third Petition: “Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”

God’s ethical will has been revealed to us by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount with the Beatitudes as the cornerstone of his teaching (Matthew 5-7). God’s will is that Christ’s followers be humble; grieve over personal and communal sin in the world; act with gentleness instead of prideful condescension toward others; hunger after true righteousness instead of legalistic self-righteousness; show mercy; be pure in heart; pursue peace; and, rejoice when persecuted. All of this results in being salt and light in this dark world.

Furthermore, we are to reconcile with others instead of hold grudges; deal with our lust through accountability instead of making excuses for our mental adultery; cherish our spouse instead of taking the easy way out when problems arise in marriage; tell the truth at all times instead of shading it; and, love, not retaliate when personally hurt or insulted. This is God’s will, and if it seems an impossible task, that is because we need divine resources to live our Christian ethic. In other words, we need to pray!

These three petitions are priorities for God. They are three ways of essentially asking the same thing – that the full manifestation of God’s reign on earth be realized.  Thus, our prayers are not primarily to receive goods and services from God, but for us to render service to God. The priority of prayer given by Jesus centers in the advancement of God’s merciful rule, and the doing of God’s will.  These prioritized prayers are a burning desire to see God honored on earth as he is already honored in heaven.

The Lord's Prayer 2

Three Problems

  1. Fourth Petition: “Give us today our daily bread.”

It is our bodies that enable us to do God’s will, and so we must be concerned for them. We must have the necessities of life and daily sustenance to carry out God’s priorities for the church and the world. This is not a prayer for long-term luxuries, but daily needs.

In the ancient world, people were paid at the end of each day. Folks also shopped every day at the marketplace for their food (no fridge!). When there was a flood or a drought, it did not just mean high grocery prices; people faced starvation and death. They needed to trust God for today, and not worry about tomorrow.  Even though we do not always readily perceive our great dependence on God, we still are in divine hands and need faith.

  1. Fifth Petition: “Forgive our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.”

Sin is pictured as a debt. If someone has sinned (trespassed) against us, we must forgive them, thus releasing them from their debt.  To forgive does not mean to forget. Rather, we are not to hold the debt or the sin over someone’s head for the rest of their life.

The simple truth is that the person who is forgiven by God is a forgiving person. Our own forgiveness implies that we have done the hard work of repentance through identifying our sin and renouncing it. So, if we fail to forgive, it demonstrates a lack of change on our part. We cannot, then, be forgiven if we are avail ourselves of the grace which is freely offered.

The practice of forgiveness is of utmost importance to Jesus. Living the Beatitudes of Jesus and being a peacemaker means we are to squarely face our bitterness. Simply sweeping our hurt under the rug and not extending forgiveness only gives the demonic realm a foothold into our lives – which is why we are to pray the final petition….

  1. Sixth Petition: “And lead us not into temptation but deliver us from the evil one.”

Just as we have real physical necessities we must trust God for, we also have genuine spiritual needs which hinge on the issue of forgiveness – our forgiveness from God through Christ, and the forgiveness we extend to others who have hurt or offended us.

An unforgiving heart is the primary reason for the temptation to hate, seek revenge, and retaliate. If we have spent days, weeks, months, years, or even decades harboring an unforgiving spirit through anger, bitterness, and avoidance of facing our past trauma, we have embraced the dark side and need deliverance from evil.

The path to deliverance is through acknowledging the offense, receiving grace and forgiveness from God, and passing that same forgiveness and grace to those who hurt us. This is not about whether they deserve it or not; it is a matter of what I need to do.

Conclusion

A desire to see God’s agenda accomplished through the first three petitions leads us to seek grace and forgiveness, not giving ground to the devil. The truth sets us free; telling our secrets brings freedom. Apart from naming our shame, we will remain bound and in need of liberation. Tell your secrets to God in the prayer closet, and then tell them to a trusted friend(s). We pray, and we act on what God tells us in prayer.

The Lord’s Prayer is a model prayer. That means we use the six petitions of Jesus to frame our prayers in our own words, as well as say the words in our favorite translation of the Bible.

We are to pray this prayer continually, for in doing so it will shape our everyday lives, serve as a guide for how to live, and provide discernment in making life’s many decisions.  To be the church is to pray. To be a Christian is to pray. So, let us daily and in every way make use of our Lord’s Prayer.

Our Father in heaven,

            The One who is both near and far,

May your Name be shown as holy,

            through us, your people.

May others submit to your lordship,

            and become holy, too.

Help us to know your will,

            and to do it.

We need you God,

           so, provide our necessities for today.

Forgive us of our great and many sins,

            just as we forgive those

            who have sinned egregiously against us.

Lead us in paths of righteousness,

            which will shoo the devil away.

For you are the Ruler,

the Mighty One,

full of glory and grace.

Amen!

Psalm 17:1-7, 15 – Hear My Prayer!

Lament

Lord, hear my prayer for justice.
I am calling loudly to you.
I am being honest in what I say,
so please listen to my prayer.
You will make the right decision,
because you can see the truth.
You were with me all night
and looked deep into my heart.
You questioned me and found that
I did not say or do anything wrong.
Unlike most people, I have obeyed your commands,
so I have never been like those who are cruel and evil.
I have followed your way.
My feet never left your path.
Every time I call to you, God, you answer me.
So listen to me now, and hear what I say.
Show your amazing kindness
and rescue those who depend on you.
Use your great power
and protect them from their enemies.

I have done only what is right, so I will see your face….
And seeing you, I will be fully satisfied. (ERV)

This is one of David’s personal psalms of lament.  It is a prayer forged during a time of severe adversity with enemies who sought to snuff-out his life.  The psalm is a plea uttered with the hope that God would indeed vindicate him and subdue those who wanted to harm him.  It is a lament that wickedness exists and often gets its way; and, it is grief over the constant threats that swirled around David.

It was David’s prayer that with all the heartless and arrogant violence continually in his life that God would keep him as the apple of his eye and hide him in the shadow of his wings. Indeed, perhaps no better prayer could be said in those times when there are people who make untrue accusations and only wish harm to be done to you, that God would be gracious, merciful, and kind through rescuing us from both bodily harm and spiritual abuse.  It is in the times when angry simpletons spew their worst that we need to confidently know that God watches over his people with affection and cares for them as a mother hen protects her chicks.

You and I are precious to God.  We can and ought to run to him when there is trouble and feel no shame in loudly crying for fairness and justice.  The Lord is a benevolent God showing firm commitment to those who seek truth, loving actions, and merciful words.  When going through a difficult time in which another or others accuse you of wrongdoing and you know you are innocent, the proper prescription is to pray this very psalm repeatedly at night before bed.  For we all know that sleep can be elusive and hard to come by in such circumstances.  Perhaps, along with David, you will be able to say: I have done what is right. I will see your face. I will be fully satisfied.

Arise, Lord God Almighty!  Deliver my soul from the wicked and subdue them!  I seek refuge in you, O Savior; show me your steadfast love as I cry out to you for justice.  Incline your ear to hear me, and answer when I call through the name of Jesus Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.