2 Timothy 2:8-13 – The Hound of Heaven

Remember Jesus Christ, raised from the dead, descended from David. This is my gospel, for which I am suffering even to the point of being chained like a criminal. But God’s word is not chained. Therefore, I endure everything for the sake of the elect, that they too may obtain the salvation that is in Christ Jesus, with eternal glory.

Here is a trustworthy saying:

If we died with him,
    we will also live with him;
if we endure,
    we will also reign with him.
If we disown him,
    he will also disown us;
if we are faithless,
    he remains faithful,
    for he cannot disown himself. (NIV)

C.S. Lewis once described God as the Hound of Heaven.  By that phrase he meant that God doggedly pursued him and would not let go.  Lewis came into Christian faith, in his own words, “kicking and screaming” as God’s faithful pursuit won out in his life. 

The Apostle Paul reminded his young protégé Timothy of some basic theology to keep him on track and encouraged in a tough ministry.  Paul gave Timothy a trustworthy saying that he could easily remember and say to himself day after day, especially when the going got tough: 

If we died with Christ,
    we will live with him.
If we don’t give up,
    we will rule with him.
If we deny
    that we know him,
he will deny
    that he knows us.
If we are not faithful,
    he will still be faithful.
Christ cannot deny
    who he is. (CEV)

The beauty, wonder, and distinction of God is his amazing grace. There is no ambiguity with God. The Lord is not fickle but loves and holds tight even when we are unlovely and practice avoidance. When God pursues, God finds; when God holds on, there is no letting go.

This trustworthy saying of Scripture is a good, short, solid expression of theological truth to memorize, meditate upon, and say to ourselves repeatedly.  We belong to Jesus Christ.  God is with us.  The Hound of Heaven will always sniff us out and bring us to himself.

Lewis likely got his phrase “Hound of Heaven” from an English poem of the same name by Francis Thompson (1859-1907). Thompson was a tortured soul who flirted in and out of depression, opium addiction, and suicidal thoughts for much of his adult life. Yet, he understood, perhaps better than most, that a loving God never stops pursuing a wayward heart. The poem’s beginning and end says this:

I fled Him, down the nights and down the days;
I fled Him, down the arches of the years;
I fled Him, down the labyrinthine ways
Of my own mind; and in the mist of tears
I hid from Him, and under running laughter….

How hast thou merited—
Of all man’s clotted clay the dingiest clot?
Alas, thou knowest not
How little worthy of any love thou art!
Whom wilt thou find to love ignoble thee,
Save Me, save only Me?
All which I took from thee I did but take,
Not for thy harms,
But just that thou might’st seek it in My arms.
All which thy child’s mistake
Fancies as lost, I have stored for thee at home:
Rise, clasp My hand, and come.
Halts by me that footfall:
Is my gloom, after all,
Shade of His hand, outstretched caressingly?
Ah, fondest, blindest, weakest,
I am He Whom thou seekest!
Thou dravest love from thee, who dravest Me.

Theology is not an impersonal affair. Personal religion still exists. The individual’s wax and wane between faith and faithlessness shall never negate divine grace. The Lord of the universe loves you. There is a deep Divine desire to shower grace upon you, to shelter and protect you. There is no need to run. Yet, if you do, God remains steadfast in his dogged pursuit. The hunt will continue….

Thank you, O God, for your great faithfulness, even to me.  I believe. Help me in my unbelief! I give unceasing praise and undying devotion to you for your grace of being the One who never lets up, through Jesus Christ my Lord.  Amen.

Romans 2:1-11 – Against Condemning Others

You, therefore, have no excuse, you who pass judgment on someone else, for at whatever point you judge another, you are condemning yourself, because you who pass judgment do the same things. Now we know that God’s judgment against those who do such things is based on truth. So, when you, a mere human being, pass judgment on them and yet do the same things, do you think you will escape God’s judgment? Or do you show contempt for the riches of his kindness, forbearance, and patience, not realizing that God’s kindness is intended to lead you to repentance?

But because of your stubbornness and your unrepentant heart, you are storing up wrath against yourself for the day of God’s wrath, when his righteous judgment will be revealed. God “will repay each person according to what they have done.” To those who by persistence in doing good seek glory, honor, and immortality, he will give eternal life. But for those who are self-seeking and who reject the truth and follow evil, there will be wrath and anger. There will be trouble and distress for every human being who does evil: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile; but glory, honor and peace for everyone who does good: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile. For God does not show favoritism. (NIV)

The Apostle Paul, writing to the Church at Rome, merely upheld the teaching of his Lord Jesus, who said:

“Do not judge, so that you may not be judged. For with the judgment you make you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get.” (Matthew 7:1-2, NRSV)

Although most people would affirm that showing favoritism is a bad thing, in practice we have a difficult time avoiding it – especially in an election season, like the one in the United States. Political mudslinging is (unfortunately) a time-honored American tradition. And so is religious judgmentalism.

Some of the most emotionally laden vitriol comes from folks who are so heavily entrenched in their religious convictions that they believe any deviation from their way of belief is worthy of scathing criticism.

People, however, do not change because someone criticizes or judges them. They experience transformation through basic divine and human kindness. As a hospital chaplain in a behavioral health unit, I affirm this to be true. Many patients have been told repeatedly by family or friends to stop doing something, get with it, move on, wake up, etc. – all with the condescending edge of judgment. Yet, when someone takes notice, is curious about them, offers helpful encouragement and a listening ear without trying to fix, souls become open to receiving the healing grace of love and truth.

God shows no partiality, and neither should we. God is right, just, and fair in all dealings with everyone. The Lord judges according to divine standards of righteousness and mercy, no matter one’s race, ethnicity, gender, economic status, or social standing. And it is all laced with the love and compassion of Christ.

Christians are not exempt or given a pass on being judgmental. Our own unhealthy practices, bad habits, and angry outbursts will be treated just like any non-Christian by God. In a time when decrying the moral condition of our world is nearly a spectator sport, the New Testament lesson for today reminds us that we must first be concerned for the condition of our own hearts before we can point the finger at another.

We all equally stand in need of God’s grace in Jesus.  There is a symbiotic relationship between our actions and the state of our hearts.  A soft and tender heart toward God leads to obedience; disobedience hardens the heart and leads to God’s wrath, no matter the individual.

So, it will help if we all faithfully engage in daily spiritual practices which keep our hearts attentive and alert to God’s will and way.  No matter how busy we are, or how we feel, to forego or ignore the Word of God and prayer on a regular basis will slowly calcify our hearts and render them unable to respond rightly to grace.  Instead, we can drink deeply of the gospel throughout every day so that we may experience peace.

Judgmentalism, favoritism, and cronyism all begin to melt away when we pick up the tools of empathy, compassion, understanding, and acceptance – using them to forge connections and supportive encouragement. It takes little to no practice to bludgeon someone with condemning criticism. However, it takes repeated practice to speak and act with grace, mercy, and peace, especially when we are stressed and/or anxious about our surrounding circumstances.

Instead of judgment, observe and be curious. Seek more information. Expand the gap between observation and conclusion. The ability to have an awareness of one’s own emotions, to be mindful of self and surroundings, and to do it all with neither criticism nor judgment is perhaps the highest form of intelligence and spirituality.

It is kindness which leads others to repentance, not condemnation. Grace has the final word, not judgment. So, let us be blessed through a gentle spirit which spreads the goodness of God throughout the world.

O God, thank you for the gift of prayer and the grace of your Word.  May it seep deep down into my heart so that I am compassionate and kind, just like Jesus.  Amen.

The Parable of the Talents

The Parables of Jesus by Argentine artist Jorge Cocco Santiago, 2018

What would you do with a million dollars?…  Maybe you would pay off some debts, finish some work on your house, or quit your job and take a vacation. Perhaps you might invest a good portion of it. However, your investment is only as good as your level of trust.   

When I worked at a senior citizen healthcare facility, there was a resident with an apartment in independent living, but he still owned his house. During one conversation, the old man admitted to me that over the past sixty years he owned his house, he had secretly bored holes in every door jamb of the house and had stuffed away $100,000 dollars in cash!  This dear resident had personally experienced the run on banks which began the Great Depression in 1929. He had zero trust for investment banking. 

A “talent” in Christ’s day was a monetary denomination.  A talent was worth 6,000 denarii, and one denarius was worth a day’s wage.  So, in Christ’s parable of the talents, Jesus was talking about millions of dollars (in today’s money) with the master who gave his servants five talents, two talents, and one talent. (Matthew 25:14-30) 

As Jesus was telling his parable, one of his chief points was to communicate that God is gracious and generous.  The three servants responded their master’s generosity according to their view of him.  Two of the servants regarded the master as gracious and generous, and so, freely took their talents and confidently invested them to create even more money.   

The two faithful servants took risks and acted with the idea that they were secure in their relationship with their master.  However, the third servant’s perception of his master was different.  This servant discerned his master as stern, serious, and angry, so therefore, he did nothing with his talent – he was afraid. 

The man was fearful because his view of the master was off.  If we consider God as primarily an angry Being, then we will almost certainly not use the gifts he has given us, for fear of messing up and experiencing his wrath.   

However, the truth is, God is gracious and generous.  The Lord has mercifully gifted everyone and expects us to use those gifts and not hide them away in a door jamb!  God wants us to actively display grace and generosity – which will require addressing our fears. If we want to hear the Lord Jesus say, “Well done, good and faithful servant,” then taking initiative is necessary. 

Fear is perhaps the greatest block in preventing God’s people from being productive Christians in serving the church and the world.  Beneath our fears are powerful feelings of inferiority, inadequacy, and an inner conviction that we are not enough. Oftentimes, a low view of self can come from a low view of God. 

Fear paralyzes our potential to serve God’s kingdom.   

Being continually afraid, drains our energy and lessens whatever impact we could have for God in the world, diminishing our resolve to act and leaving us ineffective in service. 

Fear destroys our dreams and godly desires.   

We are meant to enjoy the gracious and generous God, and in our enjoyment of the Lord, godly dreams will be placed within us that God is pleased to fulfill: 

Take delight in the Lord, and he will give you the desires of your heart. (Psalm 37:4, NLT) 

Our enjoyment of God gives us the security and confidence to act upon godly desires and produces a generous harvest of righteousness and peace. We then can share the bounty with others, as a way of giving back to God.   

Yet, if fear gets thrown into the mix, it dilutes and destroys everything.  Fear paralyzes us, and we do nothing, like the third servant in the parable.  What is more, fear can force us into hiding, just like the servant hid and buried his talent.   

In the Old Testament book of Numbers, the Israelites were immobilized by fear.  God had a grand vision and a big dream for the people to enter the Promised Land.  But ten of the twelve spies who came back after checking out the land were paralyzed by fear.  “The land has giants, and we are like grasshoppers!” they nervously said.   

Caleb and Joshua, however, had a different view of taking the land because they had a different view of God.  They didn’t see giants – they saw a gracious and generous God who could easily take care of whoever might be in the land, and they wanted to act on the faith they had in a mighty and merciful God.  The God of the other spies wasn’t big enough to handle the giants.  Their low view of themselves as grasshoppers betrayed their low view of God. (Numbers 13:26-33) 

We might wrap a lot of our fears in morbidly sanctified self-belittling.  That is, we might feel good about feeling bad and wrap ourselves with a blanket of secret shame. As a result, those self-deprecating feelings stop us from exploring God’s dream and vision for us.   

We could use some bold God-sized dreams!  We can speak and act in the world with confidence because we serve a God who sees giants as gnats. 

Some of the greatest fears that hold back people from exploring their faith is: 

  • Fear of criticism – being afraid of what others may think or say.   
  • Fear of taking a risk – being afraid of going outside the comfort zone of how something has always been done.  
  • Fear of ourselves – being afraid to explore our vast inner world with its guilt, shame, insecurity, and mixed motives. 

Fear snatches away God’s dreams for us.  If you once had a dream and you think that dream is dead because of your sins and bad habits, you are misguided.  Dreams evaporate because of fear, by being duped into believing that we are not enough, and never will be. So, we end up doing nothing. 

Fear ruins our relationship with God and others. 

Living a spiritual life, meanwhile always looking over our shoulder to see if God is going to sneak up on us and rap our knuckles with a ruler, is no way to live.  I think the hardest people to get along with are those who have a low view themselves.  Because they do not like themselves, they do not like others. They continually wonder if God is upset with them about something.  The man in the parable blamed God for his own lack of investment.  Yet, blame shifting is really our own fear and insecurity seeping through onto others – it helps no one, especially ourselves.   

God wants us to bloom with the talents given us.  God wants us to shine and succeed. God is on our side, has our backs, and wants us to live a good life. 

Fear sabotages our service. 

“I can’t!” is the cry of the person locked in fear.  I cannot stand up in front of people, meet strangers, sing, serve like that other person can or love like Jesus did.  I cannot because I am afraid, and I only have one talent!   

Perhaps you have observed that God typically uses tongue-tied people, worriers, and those with a sordid past – and not superstars – as servants commissioned with a set of talents. The less a person has, the more God shows up and shows off with generous power and gracious ability through that person. 

Nothing sabotages serving more than being afraid, worried, and believing we have so little. Give God a chance!  Step out.  Take a risk.  Act on that dream. 

Conclusion 

Once in a small village in India, a farmer brought to the open-air market a whole covey of quail, with a string tied around a foot of each bird.  The other end of the string was tied to a ring on a central stick.  The quail were all walking in a circle because of the strings on their feet.  As the day went on no one seemed interested in buying the farmer’s quail.   

Finally, an old man came and bought every one of the quail.  After he bought the quail, the old man told the farmer to cut the strings and set all the quail free.  So, the farmer did.  But none of the quail flew away.  They kept marching around in a circle as if they were still tied to the string.  Finally, the farmer had to shoo them away to get them to move, and even then, the quail landed somewhere else and just started marching in a circle again. 

God has freed and forgiven us.  Yet, we can so easily remain tethered to imaginary strings and march around in vicious circles of fear, afraid to venture into the unexplored world God has for us, to spread our wings and be free. 

God loves you.  God has wonderful plans for you.  God created you with your unique personality, gave you unparalleled experiences, and gifted you with uncommon abilities. God wants you to tap into that passion and dream placed down deep in your heart to serve the world.   

What would you do with a million dollars?  You already have it.  Now, go and invest it. 

Jeremiah 31:31-34 – A New Covenant

The Last Supper by Francis Newton Souza, 1990

“The day is coming,” says the Lord, “when I will make a new covenant with the people of Israel and Judah. This covenant will not be like the one I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand and brought them out of the land of Egypt. They broke that covenant, though I loved them as a husband loves his wife,” says the Lord.

“But this is the new covenant I will make with the people of Israel after those days,” says the Lord. “I will put my instructions deep within them, and I will write them on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people. And they will not need to teach their neighbors, nor will they need to teach their relatives, saying, ‘You should know the Lord.’ For everyone, from the least to the greatest, will know me already,” says the Lord. “And I will forgive their wickedness, and I will never again remember their sins.” (NLT)

For the past few weeks, the Daily Lectionary readings brought us steady admonitions of passing faith onto future generations, with obedience as the key to it all. However, God’s ancient people kept going through significant times of unfaithfulness, infidelity, and disobedience. As if they had some sort of spiritual A.D.D., the people could not seem to keep their eyes off the glittering gods from the surrounding nations.

For certain, God has always possessed a faithful remnant of people devoted to observing the covenant. Yet, the nation in the prophet Jeremiah’s day floundered and broke faith with the teaching given to them.

Since God’s grace has the last word, the sins and shortcomings of the backslidden people who failed to pass on the covenant teachings to their progeny would have a better ending than judgment.

God’s answer to repeated human failings was to establish a new covenant, unprecedented in its audacious mercy.

Rather than rewriting commands on stone tablets (as with Moses on Mount Sinai) and having a remedial class on covenant, God would instead do the extraordinary by writing the law on human hearts – that way they would know the Lord in a direct and immediate way. What is more, it would be for everybody, neither only for the remnant nor for the spiritual elite.

From the least to the greatest, from young to old, even from Jew to Gentile, God would forgive once and for all.

If that is not the most gracious act ever decreed, I do not know what is. This was a radical move of spiritual amnesty which was completely undeserved and most definitely not something any other god from any other nation would ever do. It was unthinkable – completely off everyone’s radar. Yet, that is exactly what grace does.

From a New Testament (New Covenant) perspective, Jesus is the fulfillment of all God’s good covenant promises to the people. Furthermore, God’s Holy Spirit serves as the continuing presence of Jesus within us, teaching us and guiding us in the ways of God. Our only task, then, is to live into those promises – to know them, claim them, and bank on them. 

We are most obedient when we believe the promises of God and throw all our hope in them.

The implications of this divine decree are enormous. It means:

  • I cannot do a dang thing to earn God’s acceptance because I already have it! (John 6:37; Colossians 1:21-22; Romans 8:33-39, 15:7-12)
  • I need not fear judgment because Jesus has already taken care of the sin issue, once for all! (Romans 6:5-10; Hebrews 7:27-28, 10:5-10; 1 John 4:17-18)
  • I lack nothing because God has already given me everything I need for life and godliness in this present evil age! (Philippians 4:19; 2 Peter 1:3-4)
  • I can know God, right now, without jumping through spiritual hoops or over imposed hurdles because Jesus leveled the way and made it clear! (John 14:6; Ephesians 2:8-9; Hebrews 2:9-18)
  • I can enjoy forgiveness and a clean heart because God has decreed it to be so! (Psalm 103:8-12; Ezekiel 36:25-27; Luke 22:20; Hebrews 8:7-13, 10:14-18)

If this were not enough, Jesus has sent the Spirit to be with us forever, to guide us and lead us into realizing the law written on our hearts. We are never alone. God is with us.

Jesus said, “The Companion, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father sends, will teach you everything and will remind you of everything I told you. Peace I leave with you. My peace I give you. I give to you not as the world gives. Do not be troubled or afraid.” (John 14:26-27, CEB)

In this world of trepidation, fear, uncertainty, and unrest, there is peace, grace, and love because of Father, Son, and Spirit, the one true God, the Blessed Holy Trinity, the Divine Warrior who fights our battles, the Lord of Hosts who has our backs. Yes, this God, and no other god, has the chutzpah to make promises to us and the power to back them up.

Our Father in heaven,
Reveal who you are.
Set the world right;
Do what’s best—as above, so below.
Keep us alive with three square meals.
Keep us forgiven with you and forgiving others.
Keep us safe from ourselves and the Devil.
You’re in charge!
You can do anything you want!
You’re ablaze in beauty!
Yes! Yes! Amen!