The Divine Warrior (Isaiah 59:15b-21)

The Lord looked and was displeased
    that there was no justice.

He saw that there was no one,
    he was appalled that there was no one to intervene;
so his own arm achieved salvation for him,
    and his own righteousness sustained him.
He put on righteousness as his breastplate,
    and the helmet of salvation on his head;
he put on the garments of vengeance
    and wrapped himself in zeal as in a cloak.
According to what they have done,
    so will he repay
wrath to his enemies
    and retribution to his foes;
    he will repay the islands their due.
From the west, people will fear the name of the Lord,
    and from the rising of the sun, they will revere his glory.
For he will come like a pent-up flood
    that the breath of the Lord drives along.

“The Redeemer will come to Zion,
    to those in Jacob who repent of their sins,”
declares the Lord.

“As for me, this is my covenant with them,” says the Lord. “My Spirit, who is on you, will not depart from you, and my words that I have put in your mouth will always be on your lips, on the lips of your children and on the lips of their descendants—from this time on and forever,” says the Lord. (New International Version)

The Lord inhabits a lot of roles as God: Creator and Sustainer, Father and Mother, Helper and Healer, Sovereign and King, Shepherd and Spirit, and much more. In today’s Old Testament lesson, we see God as the Divine Warrior and Redeemer.

Readers of the New Testament will pick up on the warrior language in Isaiah’s prophecy (Ephesians 6:10-20). The Divine Warrior readies for battle by putting on armor: a breastplate of righteousness and the helmet of salvation. The Lord prepares to intervene, to make war on injustice, because there are no earthly human warriors willing to eradicate unrighteousness, redeem the oppressed, and establish deliverance for the needy.

The “bystander effect,” or “bystander apathy,” is a social psychology term that refers to cases in which individuals do not offer any means of help to a victim when other people are present. In experiment after experiment over the past fifty years, social psychologists have found that the more bystanders there are, the less likely any one of them will help. 

For example, researchers Bibb Latané and Judith Rodin staged an experiment in 1969 around a woman in distress. 70% of the people who were alone called out or went to help the woman after they believed she had fallen and was hurt. Yet, when there were other people around, only 40% offered help.

The social psychologists found that individuals find it far too easy to stand with their hands in their pockets, whenever there are other people around that could help and do what is right and just. 

The Lord your God is with you, the Mighty Warrior who saves. (Zephaniah 3:17, NIV)

The Lord noticed that justice had disappeared. God was plenty displeased with the lack of justice – and became downright disgusted when no one was doing anything about it. 

“Rationalization is a process not of perceiving reality, but of attempting to make reality fit one’s emotions.”

Ayn Rand

The rationalizations for not becoming involved and avoiding the work of justice in the world are legion: 

  • “Someone else can do it better than me.” 
  • “But what if I screw up?”
  • “I don’t have time for this.”
  • “How could I possibly make any difference?”
  • “That’s not my job.”
  • “They made their own bed, now they can sleep in it.”
  • “I don’t know what to do.”

God puts the responsibility for ensuring that everyone has what they need to live and thrive on us. We truly are our brother’s and sister’s keeper.

So, let’s come back to the Divine Warrior image in the New Testament. Christians are to take up the armor of God, not only to protect themselves from evil, but also to fight the dark forces that keep people locked in systems of injustice. Read the following text from the perspective of ensuring justice for the common good of all people:

Finally, be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. Put on the full armor of God, so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes.For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. 

Therefore put on the full armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand. Stand firm then, with the belt of truth buckled around your waist, with the breastplate of righteousness in place,and with your feet fitted with the readiness that comes from the gospel of peace. In addition to all this, take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one. Take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God. (Ephesians 6:10-20, NIV)

The under-privileged, the under-represented, the under-served, the disadvantaged, the deprived, the indigent, and many more groups of people exist because of ignorance and apathy toward their needs. Everyone, including you and me, need to own this and not rationalize why we cannot participate.

The prophet Isaiah lets us know that none of us are anonymous; we have all been given gifts as the people of God in order to serve the greater good. 

The Lord dispenses grace and glory primarily through active people who forsake being bystanders and respond to God’s call on their lives. 

Let’s not bring out the Divine Warrior because of our own negligence. Instead, let’s be attentive to justice, righteousness, and redemption. Perhaps then God will get a more positive press in the public square.

God of justice and righteousness, you care about the people of this world receiving the things they need to live and flourish in life. Inspire and empower all of your people, including me, to spread a spirit of service in our local communities, churches, workplaces, and everywhere we live and go, through Jesus Christ our Lord in the power of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Get Me Out of This Scary Dungeon Cave! (Psalm 142)

I pray to you, Lord.
    I beg for mercy.
I tell you all my worries
    and my troubles,
and whenever I feel low,
    you are there to guide me.

A trap has been hidden
    along my pathway.
Even if you look,
    you won’t see anyone
who cares enough
    to walk beside me.
There is no place to hide,
    and no one who really cares.

I pray to you, Lord!
    You are my place of safety,
and you are my choice
    in the land of the living.
Please answer my prayer.
    I am completely helpless.

Help! They are chasing me,
    and they are too strong.
Rescue me from this prison,
    so I can praise your name.
And when your people notice
your wonderful kindness to me,
    they will rush to my side. (Contemporary English Version)

The modern holiday of Halloween is kitschy with a funny sort of scary. But there’s nothing funny about being truly frightened and feeling helpless. Its anything but a holiday.

The psalmist, David, was in both a literal and a metaphorical cave. Before he ever became king of Israel and Judah, David was on the run from King Saul. He hid in a cave. He had more suspense and was on the edge of his seat much more than any horror slasher film could portray.

David was hiding and just trying to stay alive. There was nothing in his life which deserved such maltreatment. It was sheer jealousy on Saul’s end of things that caused him to give his soul over to oppressive pride. And David was the brunt of that oppression.

As biblical readers, we know the end of the story. Saul is eventually killed in battle and David is exalted as the new king. Yet, here, in today’s psalm, we have the genuine cry of a desperate man who longed for the justice of God – not knowing what the end of it all would be.

One of the reasons David was a person after God’s own heart is that he was humble and remained connected to God without succumbing to the bitterness of his situation. I strongly suggest that David was able to keep his life free from pride because he regularly liberated his spirit through real and raw expressions of his emotions and experiences to God.

Spiritual confidence cannot be ginned-up through pretending that all is well, and everything is okay. Rather, spiritual courage is forged in the most awful of circumstances through loud cries of emotional pain to the God who truly hears it all.

Anyone who tells you different is flimsily trying to maintain their puny sense of delusional power. God sees you in the dark place and he hears your cry for mercy. He knows your dark cave better than you know it yourself.

One of the reasons I love the psalms so dearly is that they know the human condition. There is no pretense with the psalmist, David. He opens his mind and heart. He lets the genuine feelings of his life pour out in an offering to the God who pays attention to the humble and contrite.

The proud and arrogant will forever be flummoxed by the psalms, not understanding why they are even in the canon of Holy Scripture.

Yet, here they are, for all to examine and experience. Whereas the piously insincere are continually putting up a false front of godliness and keeping up appearances of superior spirituality, here we have authentic religion smack in front of our faces.

For me, the psalms liberate us from the shackles of trying to be someone I am not and enable us to connect with a God who encourages us in our strange wonderings, our emotional pain, and our sometimes horrific situations.

The Lord is perfectly at home with hearing loud cries, agonizing shouts, and desperate prayers directed to heaven.

Those who oppress others, I believe, are easy to spot because they:

  • Ask rhetorical questions to make a point.
  • Assume their thoughts and ways are always best.
  • Accuse without evidence based on their faulty assumptions.
  • Seek to harm and destroy.
  • Enjoy chaos and thrive on taking advantage of others’ misfortune.
  • Refuse to listen and learn from others.
  • Suppress all competing voices contrary to their own.

Autocrats are too smug and too far into their delusions of power, authority, and self-righteousness to be able to hear any voice other than their own.

A self-absorbed despot in power feels like being in a dingy dank prison cave with no ability to leverage a release.

A self-abnegated deliverer in authority feels like being in a wide open field with freedom to help others in bondage.

God hears when others don’t. The Lord advocates on behalf of those caught in the crosshairs of tyrannical injustice and maltreatment. Divine benevolence is always on the lookout for those being oppressed.

The Almighty uses power to listen and respond when distressed persons are scared silly with maltreatment. Voices raised to heaven shall never go unheard.

Since God listens to those in need of mercy, this is precisely the disposition we are to adopt, as well.

The proud, convinced of their superiority, either cannot or will not see those languishing underneath unjust power structures. There is no space within arrogant hearts to accommodate the cries for justice from people beneath them.

Therefore, recourse for the oppressed comes from God – because God acts with equity, integrity, and justice.

It is not the oppressed who need our pity; it is the ungodly, because they don’t know anything about pity, or empathy, or mercy. Oppressors have no stomach for any of that. So, they keep people locked in systems of oppression. They maintain relational distance and turn a blind eye to the genuine frightened screams of those under their boot.

The weak, the distressed, and the spiritually tired in this corrupt world, however, have the chance for appeal. They can call out to the God who knows them and their situations.

Although cries for deliverance may not happen immediately, we can be assured that divine help is forthcoming. And that is scary good stuff.

Lord Jesus Christ, by your patience in suffering you made my earthly pain sacred and gave me the example of humility. Be near to me in my time of weakness and pain; sustain me by your grace so that my strength and courage may not fail. Heal me according to your will. Loving Jesus, as you cried out on the cross, I cry out to you in my desperation. Do not forsake me. Grant me relief and preserve me in your perfect peace. Amen.

Speaking Truth to Power (Jeremiah 26:1-15)

The prophet Jeremiah, 6th century mosaic, Ravenna, Italy

Early in the rule of Judah’s King Jehoiakim, Josiah’s son, this word came from the Lord: The Lord proclaims: Stand in the temple courtyard and speak to all the people of the towns of Judah who have come to the temple to worship. Tell them everything I command you; leave nothing out. Perhaps they will listen, and each will turn from their evil ways. If they do, I will relent and not carry out the harm I have in mind for them because of the wrong they have done. 

So tell them, The Lord proclaims: If you don’t listen to me or follow the Instruction I have set before you—if you don’t listen to the words of the prophets that I have sent to you time and again, though you haven’t listened, then I will make this temple a ruin like Shiloh, and this city I will make a curse before all nations on earth.

The priests, the prophets, and all the people heard Jeremiah declare these words in the Lord’s temple. And when Jeremiah finished saying everything the Lord told him to say, the priests and the prophets and all the people seized him and said, “You must die! Why do you prophesy in the Lord’s name that ‘this temple will become a ruin like Shiloh, and this city will be destroyed and left without inhabitant’?” Then all the people joined ranks against Jeremiah in the Lord’s temple.

When the officials of Judah heard these things, they went up from the royal palace to the Lord’s temple and took their places at the entrance of the New Gate of the Lord’s temple. The priests and the prophets said to the officials and all the people: “This man deserves to die for prophesying against this city as you have all heard firsthand.”

Jeremiah said to all the officials and to all the people, “The Lord sent me to prophesy to this temple and this city everything you have heard. So now transform your ways and actions. Obey the Lord your God, and the Lord may relent and not carry out the harm that he’s pronounced against you. 

But me? I’m in your hands. Do whatever you would like to me. Only know for certain that if you sentence me to death, you and the people of this city will be guilty of killing an innocent man. The Lord has in fact sent me to speak everything I have said to you.” (Common English Bible)

When it comes to the spiritual and religious life, on the one hand, we hold the joy and contentment of divine connection and peace; and, on the other hand, we hold the sadness that many turn their backs on divine realities. In Christian terms, Jesus is both the cornerstone of faith and the stone which causes people to stumble and fall. (1 Peter 2:8)

Frankly, the Lord is not okay with cruel injustice, hollow worship, and inattention to both the divine and human. There is a way to make things right. But not everyone wants that. Systemic evil persists because there are always those who benefit from the current structures of power – and they care little about how it impacts those on the underbelly of their control.

Things may be going well for a large chunk of people. And, conversely, things may not be going well at all, for an even larger group of folks. Therefore, it is necessary to acknowledge that the world is not only good, but also quite broken. We must speak truth to power. I understand that this is no easy task, because rarely are things simply black and white, all good or all bad.

Jeremiah preaches in the temple gate, a woodcut by Unknown artist, 1886

In the prophet Jeremiah’s day, it was not that his opponents were pure evil with no acknowledgment of God. Rather, the problem was that the power brokers in Judah tried to keep a strict separation of religion from everything else; they were perfectly fine with God, that is, if the Lord would stay in the temple where he belonged.

But Jeremiah would have none of this sort of mentality and behavior. Keeping Yahweh out of matters of social justice, geopolitics, and institutional governance led to severe humanitarian problems. Jeremiah became God’s voice to a generation of people who ignored the divine in everything but religious ritual.

Bifurcating worship and work disconnects daily life from divine resources. Without God infused in all of life, a lack of grace fills the empty places. What’s more, the sovereign Lord can neither be silenced nor dismissed; God will find a way to accomplish peace and justice for the common good of everyone, and not just the few.

The heart of Jeremiah’s message was for king and people to be obedient in all of life, to recenter themselves around God’s law – not just the religious bits but the social ones, as well. Jeremiah did not proclaim something new. He was calling those in places of power and authority to a proper Torah observance.

The true needs and interests of our communities can never be addressed and lifted-up in the narrow self-serving interests of persons in power who turn a blind eye to anyone unlike them.

The needs and interests of our world lie in becoming who we were designed to be from the beginning: A people belonging to God, tapping into the deep reservoir of light and spirituality within us. It is to acknowledge the image of God inside us all.

We are to follow in the way of grace and truth. There is to be no division between the sacred and the secular because, for the Christian, Jesus is Lord of all.

We are to continually use our voice for both praise and prophecy, for shouting celebration to God and for speaking truth to power.

Holy God, the gracious Sovereign of all, we give you praise for your steadfast love toward us, your people. Keep us grounded in humility, sensitive to sin, attentive to that which is just and right, merciful in all things, pure in worship, and peace-loving through Christ our Lord in the strength of the Spirit. Amen.

Psalm 58 – Curse the Wicked

Do you rulers indeed speak justly?
    Do you judge people with equity?
No, in your heart you devise injustice,
    and your hands mete out violence on the earth.

Even from birth the wicked go astray;
    from the womb they are wayward, spreading lies.
Their venom is like the venom of a snake,
    like that of a cobra that has stopped its ears,
that will not heed the tune of the charmer,
    however skillful the enchanter may be.

Break the teeth in their mouths, O God;
    Lord, tear out the fangs of those lions!
Let them vanish like water that flows away;
    when they draw the bow, let their arrows fall short.
May they be like a slug that melts away as it moves along,
    like a stillborn child that never sees the sun.

Before your pots can feel the heat of the thorns—
    whether they be green or dry—the wicked will be swept away.
The righteous will be glad when they are avenged,
    when they dip their feet in the blood of the wicked.
Then people will say,
    “Surely the righteous still are rewarded;
    surely there is a God who judges the earth.” (New International Version)

The term “imprecatory” means to call down a curse on a person or group of people. There are eighteen imprecatory psalms within the Old Testament psalter, all of which make a clear petition for God to turn the evil back on the people who inflict it (or try to) on others. Maybe this surprises you that there is such language in the Bible.

There is nothing sanitized about imprecatory psalms. They are as raw and real as it gets, expressing deep anger. Whatever you might think about how a proper pious person ought to pray, imprecatory curses are likely not your first thought. But here they are, contained in Holy Scripture for our use.

One reason for the imprecatory psalms is that it is not any person’s place for revenge or retaliation. Instead, for people who are genuinely caught in the crosshairs of evil, for those who have awful trouble dogging them, prayer is their most effective recourse.

Sometimes you just have to tell it like it is. There is a time to do your best in putting up a good face so that you can deal with people who keep gossiping, slandering, and trying to get their way. Yet, there is also a time to call such behavior “evil” and cry out to God for help.

There are many folks who consider imprecatory psalms a problem because of their detailed expressions of cursing. Yet, such psalms refuse to put a positive spin on malevolent motives, wicked words, and destructive actions.

Desperate people utter desperate prayers. Their unflinching sense of injustice will not allow them to sugarcoat the villainous plans of corrupt people.

Evil is never toppled with tepid prayers from wimpy worshipers. Rather, nefarious agendas are thwarted in the teeth of specific, focused, and intense prayers directed with spiritual precision to the very core of diabolical forces.

We need not be shy about being real with God, even with praying imprecatory prayers. There really are people in this world, maybe even in your own life, that have malicious intent against you or others. Our job is not personal revenge, but to entrust ourselves to the God who fights for the poor, the oppressed, and the needy against the arrogant and the powerful. Let your prayers reflect your life.

With no cursing of evil, our emotional pain and spiritual anger come out sideways in an unkind sort of “snarky-ness” toward each other. What I am proposing is that our terrible hurt and our rage needs to be acknowledged and voiced.

Our bitterness must have an outlet, not directed toward one another, but toward the evil itself – and even toward God because God is big enough to handle our rage, whereas other humans are not.

Victimization needs a voice, and a bit of raging and cursing is the means to do it. Giving voice to our deep anger is cathartic and therapeutic. Our speech needs to be congruent with the intensity of our pain because where there are no valued words of assault for victims, the risk of hurting each other becomes much higher.

Despair with no voice and no one to hear will eventually transition to harming others.

Spiritual problems require spiritual implements to solve. And the imprecatory psalms are a major tool for pushing back the dark forces of this world. They are a significant means of spiritual assertiveness against heinous acts, acerbic words, systemic evil, depraved people, and horrible circumstances.

God’s wrath is an expression of God’s love because God is not okay with evil taking root in the lives and institutions of humanity.

Prayer is our privilege of coming to the God who upholds justice and righteousness. For if God is for us, who can be against us?