A Sacred Service Announcement (Psalm 117)

Praise the Lord, all you nations.
    Praise him, all you people of the earth.
For his unfailing love for us is powerful;
    the Lord’s faithfulness endures forever. (New Living Translation)

The Lord is God of the nations – and not only of you and me – whether they recognize it, or not.

All nations, not just the good ones, are invited to praise the Lord. Everyone is encouraged to glory in the love and faithfulness they see.

Since God is present, faithful, just, right, good, loving, and gracious – all the time – those very same dynamics are continually operating in God’s big world. Just as the storm clouds rain on both the righteous and the wicked, and just as the sun shines over every nation and people group on the earth, so the Lord’s great love is a powerful force which encompasses the entire world.

God’s faithfulness and steadfast love never ends. Let that sink in…. Ruminate on it for a bit…. 

What does it mean? How does it work itself out? Is God faithful to me? 

As a Pastor and Chaplain, I can tell you that one of the most difficult things I see people struggling with is if God can really do things in their lives like he does in other people’s lives. 

Many times, we have a strong faith for other people – that God will forgive, heal, help, and show up in their lives. Yet when it comes to me personally, it becomes an entirely different thing. My faith is like a wet noodle. We wonder if anything can really change. *Sigh*

Just as we hear public service announcements, it is good to hear the sacred service announcements which are just as important. We need our spiritual awareness raised so that we can make some behavioral changes and adjustments.

We need the reminder, and continual announcement, that God makes good on divine promises. The Lord will accomplish all the decrees and promises made, no matter how long ago they were uttered.

It certainly might seem like God is strolling through the park, burning away precious time, being agonizingly slow in moving on our behalf. 

But know this: As it is in heaven, so shall it be on earth. The sovereign Lord of all creation doesn’t only work in other places amongst other people. Jesus is presently building his church and the gates of hades shall not prevail against it. (Matthew 16:18)

There is no handwringing, nail-biting, or eye-rolling in heaven. The Lord is sovereign and limitless, and so, reaches into every geographical locale amongst every people group – and does it all with love.

I know God is a healer because I have seen him heal. I know the Lord is a deliverer because I’ve been delivered. I know God is a provider because I see the Lord’s merciful abundance every day. All this, and more, is reason to offer praise, glory, and honor to the great Sovereign who is worthy of it.

From all that dwell below the skies,
Let the Creator’s praise arise;
Let the Redeemer’s name be sung
Through every land by every tongue.

Eternal are Thy mercies Lord;
Eternal truth attends Thy Word;
Thy praise shall sound from shore to shore
Till suns shall rise and set no more.

– Isaac Watts, From All That Dwell Below the Skies

Since God can and does work everywhere, the Lord will show up in your life and your family and your church and your community, just like what has been happening throughout all eras, in all places, and in all times.

If you are waiting and watching for that to happen, perhaps the most appropriate response is to praise God for what is going to happen. Have some vision to look ahead, give thanks ahead of time, and praise the Lord for the incredible work of saving, healing, teaching, growing, and transforming that will occur in Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit. 

It isn’t just for others; it is for you, my friend. How will you trust him today?

Let every nation praise you, Lord,
each with its different tongue;
in every language learn your word,
and let your name be sung.

Let our unceasing songs now show
the mercies of our Lord;
and make succeeding ages know
how faithful is your word.

Your mercy reigns through every land;
your grace is spread abroad;
forever firm, your truth shall stand.
We’ll praise our faithful God!

– Isaac Watts (1674-1748)

The Time Is Near (Revelation 22:8-21)

“The Time Is Near, Revelation 22:10-12” by Anthony Falbo, 2019

I, John, am the one who heard and saw these things. And when I had heard and seen them, I fell down to worship at the feet of the angel who had been showing them to me. But he said to me, “Don’t do that! I am a fellow servant with you and with your fellow prophets and with all who keep the words of this scroll. Worship God!”

Then he told me, “Do not seal up the words of the prophecy of this scroll, because the time is near. Let the one who does wrong continue to do wrong; let the vile person continue to be vile; let the one who does right continue to do right; and let the holy person continue to be holy.”

“Look, I am coming soon! My reward is with me, and I will give to each person according to what they have done. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the First and the Last, the Beginning and the End.

“Blessed are those who wash their robes, that they may have the right to the tree of life and may go through the gates into the city. Outside are the dogs, those who practice magic arts, the sexually immoral, the murderers, the idolaters and everyone who loves and practices falsehood.

“I, Jesus, have sent my angel to give you this testimony for the churches. I am the Root and the Offspring of David, and the bright Morning Star.”

The Spirit and the bride say, “Come!” And let the one who hears say, “Come!” Let the one who is thirsty come; and let the one who wishes, take the free gift of the water of life.

I warn everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this scroll: If anyone adds anything to them, God will add to that person the plagues described in this scroll. And if anyone takes words away from this scroll of prophecy, God will take away from that person any share in the tree of life and in the Holy City, which are described in this scroll.

He who testifies to these things says, “Yes, I am coming soon.”

Amen. Come, Lord Jesus.

The grace of the Lord Jesus be with God’s people. Amen. (New International Version)

“St. John the Divine” by David Raber, 2013. The top corners are the Greek letters Alpha and Omega, representing the Beginning and the End; the corresponding letters in Hebrew are at the bottom corners. The Apostle John holds a scroll, a symbol of Christ as the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.

The very last chapter of the big thick Bible let’s us know that the time is near for the end of the world as we know it. Jesus himself tells us that he is coming soon. That might sound weird, considering we are reading Christ’s words two millennia later. There’s nothing soon about 2,000 years in the past. So, how can the time of Christ’s return be “soon?”

Time is viewed differently by God than by us, especially in this modern and/or postmodern era. Whereas we orient ourselves around chronological time by measuring minutes and hours, the Lord is much more event oriented.

Throughout Holy Scripture we have major events of creation, fall, and redemption. Now, there is only one event left on God’s celestial timetable: Christ coming to judge the living and the dead, and the full establishment of a world without any sin or Satan. In that sense, the time is near and very soon.

“Time” itself is really a human yardstick. It’s merely the relationship between events – and we humans like our measurements and metrics. Yet, the Lord is above time. God simultaneously sees the past, present, and future. And when all things are eventually made right, there will be no need for time anymore because all events have run their course.

But how does any of that stuff about time help me in the here-and-now?

We still have time. As long as it is still Today, everyone has the opportunity to change, to do better, to “come” to the eternal wellspring of living water.

None of our lives can ever be reduced to a single event or action. The screw-up or outright sin that we did back there in our lives doesn’t define us. If it did, all of us would be soundly condemned. Instead, it is the habitual offenders, the ones who repeatedly and intentionally do wrong and/or chronically ignore their fellow humanity (and God); it is they who shall be on the outside of a restored Paradise.

So, it’s not too late. The call is out. Jesus himself invites everyone who hears to come.

And since the call is out there, ringing in history for the past two-thousand years, a warning is there for those who either subtract or add to the simple invitation.

Yet no matter the past guilt nor the present moment, grace is the final word. It is, quite literally, the final verse of the Bible.

In a book filled with a vision of end time judgment, it is divine graciousness which has the ultimate and final say. Even with a world under a curse, and with the earth facing judgment, divine blessings abound. The word “blessing” in Scripture simply means to have God’s stamp of approval. Within John’s Apocalypse, we have several instances of blessing:

God blesses (approves) the one who reads the words of this prophecy to the church, and he blesses all who listen to its message and obey what it says, for the time is near. (Revelation 1:3, NLT)

Then I heard a voice from heaven say, “Put this in writing. From now on, the Lord will bless everyone who has faith in him when they die.” The Spirit answered, “Yes, they will rest from their hard work, and they will be rewarded for what they have done.” (Revelation 14:13, CEV)

“Keep watch! I come unannounced, like a thief. You’re blessed if, awake and dressed, you’re ready for me. Too bad if you’re found running through the streets, naked and ashamed.” (Revelation 16:15, MSG)

Then the angel said to me, “Write the following: Blessed are those who are invited to the banquet at the wedding celebration of the Lamb!” He also said to me, “These are the true words of God.” (Revelation 19:9, NET)

Blessed and holy are those who share in the first resurrection. Over these the second death has no power, but they will be priests of God and of Christ, and they will reign with him a thousand years. (Revelation 20:6, NRSV)

“Listen, I am coming soon! Great blessings belong to the one who obeys the words of prophecy in this book.”

Jesus (Revelation 22:7, ERV)

God’s grace allows us to have solidarity with one another as believers throughout the world, no matter the culture, no matter the church or particular Christian tradition.

Grace strengthens us to persevere and labor in hope, no matter the naysayers around us.

Grace gives us courage to face both our present troubles and future uncertainties, no matter the anxiety which fills the earth.

The presence of God is grace. Christ is alive and will come very soon. Be ready, my friends. The time is near.

May you walk in a manner worthy of our spiritual calling and draw near to Christ so you can triumph over the sufferings of this present time.

May you taste and see the goodness of the Lord and be assured of God’s great love for you.

And may the blessing of almighty God – Father, Son, and Spirit – abide with you always. Amen.

Let the Little Children Come (Luke 18:15-17)

People were also bringing babies to Jesus for him to place his hands on them. When the disciples saw this, they rebuked them. But Jesus called the children to him and said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. Truly I tell you, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.” (New International Version)

I happen to believe that kids are closer to the kingdom of God than most adults.

Us big people have developed a lot of baggage over the years. And all that stuff tends to obscure God’s kingdom and the light of Christ within us.

Kids, however, especially small children, still haven’t discerned any veil between the seen and unseen worlds. They freely move between them both without any problem.

So, of course, Jesus wanted to be around children. If he had any homesickness at all, I’m sure the presence of kids made him feel at home more than anywhere else on this earth.

Jesus is our Immanuel, God with us.

The kingdom of God is here within us.

The disciples of Jesus had some difficulty with Christ’s branding of the message because it was not exclusive enough for them. They wanted limits on the us part.

Kids are part of that mass of people that God is with. Children deserve as much or more attention than adults. More than simply saying that we care about kids, we need to be like Jesus. He let the children come to him and was intolerant of anyone preventing kids from doing so.

Since the disciples were, ironically, still living in a small world, they rebuked those who brought little children to Jesus.

We aren’t specifically told why the disciples rebuked the adults bringing children to Jesus. Maybe the children were making a lot of noise and were being a nuisance in the middle of Jesus’ teaching. Perhaps the disciples had Jesus on a tight time schedule and this bringing kids to Christ thing was causing a delay. It could be that the disciples simply saw children as an interruption to the “important” work of ministry. 

I tend to think that the disciples simply failed to appreciate the children. The dominate view of kids in the ancient world was to see them as potential adults. Kids were pretty low on the ladder of society. The disciples likely saw no reason for children to be involved in what was happening.

The babies and toddlers and small children were brought so that Jesus might place his hands on them and pray for them. That still seems to me to be the best reason to bring kids to Jesus. 

“This story teaches us that Christ does not receive only those who voluntarily come to Him of a holy desire and moved by faith, but also those who might not yet be old enough to realize how much they need His grace….  From this we gather that His grace reaches to this age of life also….  It would be cruel to exclude that age from the grace of redemption.”

John Calvin

“Jesus does not only save repentant adults; he also saves dependent children and all those whom we think are incompetent to respond to Jesus.”

Frederick Dale Bruner

Jesus flat out rebuked his disciples for hindering the little children from coming to him. He wanted just the opposite of what was taking place. Why? Because the kingdom of heaven belongs to such little people as these. 

As mentioned, children were at the bottom of the societal pecking order in the ancient world. Their place in that society was to be respectful and quiet, to speak only when spoken to, and to never interrupt an adult.

Yet, Jesus took the time to touch them and pray for them. He invited this interruption to his schedule. Christ bluntly told his disciples that they were the ones being the hindrance, not the kids.

I baptize all sorts of people, including kids and babies. Why? Because in baptism, I recognize that the smallest ones among us can come to this holy sacrament. I understand that in baptism the Holy Spirit begins and initiates the process of salvation that will take that little one from infancy to adulthood and eventual death. I discern that, ideally, the child grows to live into their baptism by recognizing by faith that Jesus died and rose from the dead and grants grace and forgiveness to all who come to him. 

In that process of salvation, of coming to know Jesus, we have the sacrament of the Lord’s Table to strengthen our faith and demonstrate to us that the saving work of Jesus that has been accomplished. It is a Table of grace for all the members of Christ’s Church. 

In my Reformed Christian tradition, we believe that Jesus is not physically, but spiritually present at the Table.  Because Jesus is present, we are able to receive the grace available to us as Christ’s members. So why, in light of this reality, and the words and practice of Jesus toward children, would we ever hinder and prevent the smallest members among us from participating at the Table?

Here’s a thought: If Jesus himself were serving communion in a church, and a group of 2-year-old children came toddling up to the Table to see Jesus, would you stop them from doing so? Or much like the disciples, would you rebuke those bringing children to Jesus?

As for me, I’d rather not be rebuked by my Lord.

Jesus gave children the three gifts they most need: time, touch, and prayer. Parenting and teaching are holy vocations, and we have the wonderful privilege of bestowing these same gifts on our children, grandchildren, and students.

Time, touch, and prayer are ways we bless children. And, what’s more, as God’s children, we are all to approach Jesus and spend time with him, allow him to touch us, and interact with him through prayer. 

May we all have the humility to bend down at eye level to the littlest among us so that we and others will know that the kingdom of God is among us.

A Living Hope (1 Peter 1:3-9)

Let us give thanks to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! Because of his great mercy he gave us new life by raising Jesus Christ from death. This fills us with a living hope, and so we look forward to possessing the rich blessings that God keeps for his people. He keeps them for you in heaven, where they cannot decay or spoil or fade away. They are for you, who through faith are kept safe by God’s power for the salvation which is ready to be revealed at the end of time.

Be glad about this, even though it may now be necessary for you to be sad for a while because of the many kinds of trials you suffer. Their purpose is to prove that your faith is genuine. Even gold, which can be destroyed, is tested by fire; and so your faith, which is much more precious than gold, must also be tested, so that it may endure. Then you will receive praise and glory and honor on the Day when Jesus Christ is revealed. 

You love him, although you have not seen him, and you believe in him, although you do not now see him. So you rejoice with a great and glorious joy which words cannot express, because you are receiving the salvation of your souls, which is the purpose of your faith in him. (Good News Translation)

There’s no need for hope if everything’s going just the way you like it. I remember when I was a college undergraduate, I hoped for Christ’s return toward the end of every semester. The prospect of all those final exams and the pressure of grades had me longing for heaven.

But that’s life. Maturity, resilience, perseverance, and just about every virtue you can think of comes as a result of life’s trials and sufferings. The Christian has hope, precisely because things aren’t the way they’re supposed to be.

Faith has to be tried and tested. And hard circumstances are the way of purifying it. Like gold being purged of any dross by being exposed to extreme heat, so our faith becomes strong, robust, and genuine by the purgative fires of life’s many large and small sufferings.

The whole point of it all is to make us people worthy of our spiritual calling. Resurrection only happens because there’s been a death. Glory is only realized through suffering.

New life, the Christian life, isn’t a matter of making a new set of resolutions, as if it were nothing more than aspirations at the beginning of a calendar year. Rather, Christian faith is a response to the mercy of God in Jesus Christ.

One of my all-time favorite stories is Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables. It’s a story of grace and new life, of a hopeless man given the chance at hope.

The main character is Jean Valjean, who spends nineteen years in jail for stealing a loaf of bread for his starving family. The experience in prison caused him to become a bitter and cynical man. After his release, Jean Valjean has nowhere to go. 

In desperation, he seeks lodging one night at the home of a Catholic bishop, who treats him with genuine kindness, which Valjean sees only as an opportunity to exploit. In the middle of the night, he steals the bishop’s silver and skedaddles. 

The next day, however, Valjean is caught by the police. When they bring him back to the bishop’s house for identification, the police are surprised when the bishop hands two silver candlesticks to Jean, implying that he had given the stolen silver to him, saying, “You forgot these.” 

After dismissing the police, the bishop turns to Jean Valjean and says, “I have bought your soul for God.” In that moment, by the bishop’s act of mercy, Valjean’s bitterness is broken. Hope springs to life.

Jean Valjean’s forgiveness is the beginning of a new life. The bulk of Victor Hugo’s novel demonstrates the utter power of a redeemed life. Jean chooses the way of mercy, as the bishop had done. Valjean raises an orphan, spares the life of a parole officer who spent fifteen years hunting him, and saves his future son-in-law from death, even though it nearly cost him his own life. 

“Jean Valjean, my brother, you no longer belong to what is evil but to what is good. I have bought your soul to save it from black thoughts and the spirit of perdition, and I give it to God.” ― Victor Hugo, Les Misérables

Throughout Jean Valjean’s new life, there are trials and temptations all along the way. Yet, mercy keeps his faith strong, and hope kindled. Whereas before, Valjean responded to mercy with a brooding melancholy and inner anger, now – after being shown grace – he responds to each case of unjust suffering with gratitude, deeply thankful for the chance to live a new life full of grace.

Hope is kept alive because of suffering. Faith is strengthened by means of adversity. And both originate because of mercy and grace.

Christianity is a worldview perspective that enables one to rejoice in difficulty. For the Christian, there is no empty meaningless grief; there is the hope that our suffering means something. Like the athlete who endures all the painful practice in order to realize a future hope, so the believer in Jesus goes into strict training for the development of faith – all in the confident expectation of a fulfilled salvation.

It’s a hard lesson to learn, this seemingly weird alchemy of faith, suffering, hope, joy, and new life. And every generation of Christians needs to experientially discover it. Each believer eventually learns, in the crucible of hard circumstances, that the promises of God are the ballast to persevere in faith and patience throughout life.

Christian hope is a confident expectation that the promises of God will be completely realized.

A Christian’s salvation encompasses past, present, and future.

We were saved back there in the past when Christ died on the cross for us. We were crucified with him.

We are presently being saved from the world, the sinful nature, and the devil, through the sanctifying work of the Spirit in making us holy.

And we will be saved in the future when Christ returns to judge the living and the dead. Then, our salvation will be fully realized. Since that hasn’t happened yet, we have hope to sustain us.

It was hope that sustained me in college. I endured all the hours of study, all the exams, all the various courses taken, with the confident expectation that I would someday walk across that stage, receive my diploma, and graduate with my intended degree.

We ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption to sonship, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved. But hope that is seen is no hope at all. Who hopes for what they already have? But if we hope for what we do not yet have, we wait for it patiently. (Romans 8:23-25, NIV)

The Christian’s hope for ultimate deliverance is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading. This means we can live through a difficult day or week or month or a year, or even decades, with spiritual endurance. Our goal shall come in all its fullness. 

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying,

“See, the home of God is among mortals.
He will dwell with them;
they will be his peoples,
and God himself will be with them and be their God;
he will wipe every tear from their eyes.
Death will be no more;
mourning and crying and pain will be no more,
for the first things have passed away.” (Revelation 21:1-4, NRSV)

Eventually, suffering will have done its work and we will be with Christ forever. Until that day, let us explore all that God has for us, embracing both the meaning and the mystery of faith. 

Since our salvation is assured, let us live with confidence and run the race marked out for us.

Heavenly Father, you created us and lovingly care for us. We accept all our sufferings willingly, and as truly obedient children we submit ourselves to your holy will. Give us the strength to accept your loving visitation to us through adversity, and never let us grieve your heart by giving-in to impatience. We offer you our pains to be used for your honor and glory, through Jesus Christ our Lord, in the strength of the Holy Spirit. Amen.