I know your reputation, Lord, and I am amazed at what you have done. Please turn from your anger and be merciful; do for us what you did for our ancestors.
You are the same Holy God who came from Teman and Paran to help us. The brightness of your glory covered the heavens, and your praises were heard everywhere on earth. Your glory shone like the sun, and light flashed from your hands, hiding your mighty power. Dreadful diseases and plagues marched in front and followed behind. When you stopped, the earth shook; when you stared, nations trembled; when you walked along your ancient paths, eternal mountains and hills crumbled and collapsed. The tents of desert tribes in Cushan and Midian were ripped apart.
Our Lord, were you angry with the monsters of the deep? You attacked in your chariot and wiped them out. Your arrows were ready and obeyed your commands.
You split the earth apart with rivers and streams; mountains trembled at the sight of you; rain poured from the clouds; ocean waves roared and rose. The sun and moon stood still, while your arrows and spears flashed like lightning.
In your furious anger, you trampled on nations to rescue your people and save your chosen one. You crushed a nation’s ruler and stripped his evil kingdom of its power. His troops had come like a storm, hoping to scatter us and glad to gobble us down. To them we were refugees in hiding— but you smashed their heads with their own weapons. Then your chariots churned the waters of the sea. (Contemporary English Version)
Tucked away in the Old Testament is the little prophecy of Habakkuk. Yet it packs a punch of a message.
The prophet was distressed over the corruption of his people, Israel. So, he complained to God about it. God responded by informing Habakkuk that judgment was coming to sinful Israel through the pagan Babylonians.
This was not what Habakkuk expected. The prophet grumbled even more about the fact that the Babylonians were much more evil than the Israelites. The Babylonians needed judgment, too! (Habakkuk 1:2-17)
Today’s Old Testament lesson is Habakkuk’s struggle to come to terms with what God was doing. He remembered the Lord’s mighty deeds and miraculous actions from the past. God brought justice to Israel and judged the powerful Egyptians.
It seems that Habakkuk wanted God to make right the corruption of Israel, but not to do it in the same way that pagan nations are handled.
We all must come to grips with the cost of justice, of truly making things right and turning corruption and oppression around. Sometimes, maybe most times, implementing justice will impact everyone in an adverse way. For there is no realistic scenario in which someone gets to call for justice, then doesn’t have to live with the consequences – even if that someone isn’t culpable for the unjust actions.
You see, we are all inextricably connected to one another. We are of the same human family. We truly are our brother’s and sister’s keeper. We don’t get to shout or throw rocks from a distance and have everything magically change with no cost to us, personally.
It took the prophet Habakkuk awhile, but he finally resolved to live without having any closure. Instead, he took the stance of faith that he had always taken. Because when all is said and done, whether we like a particular outcome, or not, we must all live by faith, trusting in the sovereign God who always does what is right.
And here is the conclusion the prophet settled upon:
Though the fig tree does not bud and there are no grapes on the vines, though the olive crop fails and the fields produce no food, though there are no sheep in the pen and no cattle in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the Lord, I will be joyful in God my Savior.
The Sovereign Lord is my strength; he makes my feet like the feet of a deer, he enables me to tread on the heights. (Habakkuk 3:17-19, NIV)
Even though the circumstances were bad, and got worse, even dire, yet the prophet chose to rejoice in the Lord. He took the path of radical trust through suffering and hardship.
One of the most significant faith experiences we can ever have is to come to the point of complete trust in God so that our happiness is not dependent upon good circumstances.
The truth is that the believer’s joy and spiritual security is independent of what is going on around them. Even though situations might be difficult, even evil, the faithful can still rejoice because they do not need everything to go their way in order to experience happiness.
Joy is neither cheap, nor easy. Total trust in God can only really come through a serious and open engagement, even argument, with God. And the place of contentment comes from a consistent, persevering, and constant interaction with God – just like Habakkuk did.
O Lord, we are at the limits of our power to effect any sort of change, help, or service. For what we have left undone, forgive us. For what you have helped us to do, we thank you. For what must be done by others, lend your strength. Now shelter us in your peace which passes our understanding. Amen.
Let me sing for my loved one a love song for his vineyard. My loved one had a vineyard on a fertile hillside. He dug it, cleared away its stones, planted it with excellent vines, built a tower inside it, and dug out a wine vat in it. He expected it to grow good grapes— but it grew rotten grapes. So now, you who live in Jerusalem, you people of Judah, judge between me and my vineyard: What more was there to do for my vineyard that I haven’t done for it? When I expected it to grow good grapes, why did it grow rotten grapes? Now let me tell you what I’m doing to my vineyard. I’m removing its hedge, so it will be destroyed. I’m breaking down its walls, so it will be trampled. I’ll turn it into a ruin; it won’t be pruned or hoed, and thorns and thistles will grow up. I will command the clouds not to The vineyard of the Lord of heavenly forces is the house of Israel, and the people of Judah are the plantings in which God delighted. God expected justice, but there was bloodshed; righteousness, but there was a cry of distress! (Common English Bible)
God is the owner of the vineyard. Israel and Judah are the beloved. The Lord graciously chose them, gave them divine promises, and set his steadfast love upon them. God sang over them with affection and took care of them.
The Lord God put time, effort, and love into the relationship. God anticipated good things, looked forward to a bright future, and expected a flowering of justice and righteousness from the people.
It didn’t happen. The relationship went sour. Nothing but rotten grapes.
God builds. God gives. God sustains…. God destructs. God takes away. God ends it.
The Lord didn’t put all that work into the people to have them perpetuate injustice toward the poor and disadvantaged. God didn’t choose Israel so that they would then neglect God’s law by mistreating others and ignoring the right.
The bloodshed of the people was that they squeezed and bled the poor to death. Their cries and anguished responses were ignored. There was no mercy. So, God was not about to idly stand by and let such rotten grapes abuse and ruin the good, the just, and the right.
The relationship between and God and God’s people was an ancient love song that went off key and struck a minor chord. The Lord has extreme love and patience… until he doesn’t. There’s no way the just and right God is going to put up with abusive, ignorant, and bad folks forever.
Jesus had this allegorical image of Isaiah in mind when he spoke in parables about the impossibility of good fruit coming from bad vines and trees, and the necessity of removing dead branches. (Luke 6:43-45; John 15:1-17)
If the grapes are bad, the vine is bad. If the words are hateful, sarcastic, passive-aggressive, manipulative, conniving, racist, hurtful, mean, foolish, and either subtly or overtly abusive, then the person has a dark heart and is need of redemption, not excuses.
Learn to do good. Seek justice. Help the oppressed. Defend the cause of orphans. Fight for the rights of widows.
Isaiah 1:17, NLT
Every tree that does not bear good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire. The wicked heart will not be able to speak ill of others and act hatefully with impunity forever. They will be called to account for their abusive words and actions, whether overtly violent, or subtly undermining.
The righteous heart, however, shall experience divine pleasure and reward, as if the careful construction of helpful and building up words with loving deeds wins first-prize at the great heavenly fair for their plump juicy grapes.
The good person loves and does not hate. They are so far from harming anyone that they even pray and wish well for their enemies. They pray for blessings on those who curse them. There is an honest striving to speak good words to everyone, regardless of who they are.
The upright heart thinks the best of everyone and holds nothing over someone else’s head. Such a good heart condemns no one, leaving all judgment to God alone. It is patient with the most exasperating of people, praying they might come to their senses and become spiritually healthy.
The righteous are able to use their speech to admonish their neighbor with care and affection. They freely forgive, happily give, liberally encourage, and use their tongue to speak words of life. Indeed, their speech is wise, humble, full of grace, and above all, loving.
The just and right person uses their hands and feet to build good things for others, especially the most vulnerable and needy among us. They willingly meet needs without bitterness or with a begrudging heart.
If there is a problem with words, it will not do to simply change the speech. That’s because it is a heart issue. And the heart must be willing to change and be transformed by sheer mercy.
If there is an issue with actions, it will not do to merely enforce a change in behavior. That’s because it’s a heart problem. And the heart desperately needs to acknowledge sin and repent from evil.
Fortunately, God is the expert on renovating dilapidated hearts and performing effective heart transplants.
Oftentimes something needs to be destroyed for a building to be erected. There always needs to be a death before there can be a resurrection. New life cannot occur without forsaking an old life.
In this Christian season of Lent, believers in Jesus are mindful that our life of faith, hope, and love comes from a death. So, we journey with Jesus along the road of suffering, up Calvary, and are crucified with him so that we might rise with him.
This is the way.
It is the way of repentance, of genuine change, of new habits, of Christianity. So now, let’s go to him outside the camp, bearing his shame. We don’t have a permanent city here, but rather we are looking for the city that is still to come. (Hebrews 13:13-14)
May justice, righteousness, and peace be yours in abundance through him who gave himself for us and for our salvation.
I’m in trouble. I cry to God, desperate for an answer: “Deliver me from the liars, God! They smile so sweetly but lie through their teeth.”
Do you know what’s next, can you see what’s coming, all you bold-faced liars? Pointed arrows and burning coals will be your reward.
I’m doomed to live in Meshech, cursed with a home in Kedar, My whole life lived camping among quarreling neighbors. I’m all for peace, but the minute I tell them so, they go to war! (The Message)
I wish we lived in a world where people always speak and live the truth in love, without lying, pretense, or posturing. But we don’t. Not everyone embraces a life of encouraging others through truthful affirmation and selfless acts of service.
In reading today’s psalm, I immediately think of all the patients I’ve seen as a chaplain on my behavioral health unit who have been gaslighted.
“Gaslighting” is a recent term, yet the concept is as old as Satan’s interaction with Adam and Eve in the Garden. The word comes from the 1944 movie, “Gaslight,” starring Charles Boyer and Ingrid Bergman. In the attempt to drive his wife insane, the husband rigs the gaslights of the house so they will flicker at night. Whenever his wife comments on it, her husband flat-out lies and says the lights are not flickering at all. I’ll let you watch the film yourself to see what happens.
A person who “gaslights” uses psychological manipulation to gain and assert control over someone or some group. Gaslighters actively undermine others, using their words against them, plotting nefarious plans for them behind their backs, lying without so much of a blink of an eye, and turning family or friends against someone – all with the insidious agenda of increasing their power over that person and solidifying their dependence from the victim.
All of this gaslighting behavior is done with a smile, said with syrupy words to hook you, rather than help you. That, of course, makes it hard to spot – which is why it is so devilish. If the gaslighter can get you to doubt yourself, your abilities, or your perception of reality, then they can worm themselves into your life and plant their thoughts inside you.
Gaslighters don’t want peace. They want conflict. People at war give them an opportunity to gain more influence and power. Plus, they just plain like to watch others fight amongst themselves. It gives them a sense of control.
Today’s psalm is part of the psalms of ascent – songs used by the community as they walk their pilgrimage to Jerusalem and up the temple mount. The people collectively lament the gaslighting activity of those who oppose and hate them. And they turn to God, who abhors gaslighters, seeking solace and safety from their evil ways.
The gaslighter’s end is certain. They will have to contend with the God who will not be manipulated by anyone. Although it is not our job to punish sinners, it very much is our responsibility to see and avoid gaslighting as much as possible, as well as, God forbid, becoming a gaslighter ourselves. To that end, take note of some of the manipulative marks of gaslighters and patterns of gaslighting:
Pitting people against one another. This is done a variety of ways through gossip masked as trying to help, subtle slander, and carefully placed lies.
Avoiding responsibility. The gaslighter never owns their words and actions but are experts at blaming others for whatever goes awry.
Creating fights and conflicts. Gaslighters chronically avoid the dirty work. They get others riled-up at each other, then sit back and look for an opportunity to seize control over the warring parties.
Sucking-up to others. Flattery is a well-worn tool of gaslighters. They are masters at buttering-up people to get what they want.
Comparing people. This is just another way of driving a wedge between people. “Why can’t you be like ___?”
Mistreating the weak and powerless. The weak have no value for the gaslighter because the powerless have nothing to offer them. So, oppression becomes a means of getting the weak out of the way, like they’re some pesky insect to get rid of.
Bragging about accomplishments and stealing other’s. Gaslighters will always take the credit for an accomplishment and then boast about it, all the while badgering the victim.
Not keeping promises. Usually there’s a bait and switch where the gaslighter will promise something, then switch the rules or tell a bold-faced lie that they never promised that.
There is much more gaslighting behavior, but you get the drift. The best way to deal with a gaslighter? Get as far away from them as you can, find genuine supportive relationships, and leave them to God.
Today’s psalm can be your prayer to the Lord, offering a heartfelt plea to the Divine Being who does the opposite of gaslighting: strengthening you, giving you power, listening to your voice, and loving you with complete altruistic motives.
Eternal Father, you created us in your own image and likeness, but sin has warped the minds of humanity so that there is much injustice and much carelessness of the rights of other people in this fallen world. I pray you will right every wrong and vindicate those being treated unjustly. Keep us, your people, from trying to take matters into our own hands for vengeance. Give justice and peace to all those who have been cruelly and unfairly treated. May the injustice they have endured be the means to draw them into the saving arms of your grace, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
“But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, though you are small among the clans of Judah, out of you will come for me one who will be ruler over Israel, whose origins are from of old, from ancient times.”
Therefore, Israel will be abandoned until the time when she who is in labor bears a son, and the rest of his brothers return to join the Israelites.
He will stand and shepherd his flock in the strength of the Lord, in the majesty of the name of the Lord his God. And they will live securely, for then his greatness will reach to the ends of the earth.
And he will be our peace. (New International Version)
An Awful Situation
In the prophet Micah’s day, there was no “peace on earth, goodwill to all.” After the reign of King Solomon, Israel was divided between north and south. Samaria was the capital of the northern kingdom of Israel. Jerusalem was the capital of the southern kingdom of Judah.
In the eighth-century B.C.E. the Assyrian Empire conquered the northern kingdom of Israel. They deported many of the Israelites and re-populated the cities with their own people. This is why the Jews in Christ’s day looked down on Samaritans. They pejoratively viewed them as “half-breeds,” a mix of Jewish and Assyrian descent.
The Assyrian takeover of Israel not only left the northern kingdom in shambles; it had a huge impact on the southern kingdom of Judah. Even though Judah had not been conquered, they were still forced to pay tribute to the Assyrians.
The problem was exacerbated with the leadership of Judah seeking to maintain their power and lifestyle. They did not look to God for help and ignored the needs of the people. Judah’s leaders expected the poor common folk to shoulder the burden of the tribute to the Assyrians. In addition, thousands of refugees from Israel were flooding into Judah and Jerusalem. They had lost their homes, their land, and had nothing but their lives. So, the already scant resources in Judah were pushed to the brink.
Those in authority and power, the ones with resources to make a difference, didn’t. Instead, they took advantage of the situation by buying fields and land at a fraction of its worth because people were just trying to survive. In some cases, the leadership leveraged their power by simply pushing people off their own land and taking it over.
There Is Hope
Into this awful situation, Micah prophesied judgment to the leaders oppressing the people – and hope for the poor and the displaced. Micah said a new kind of leader will come – one with humble origins, like the common oppressed people of Judah. The refugees, the displaced farmers, and the poor will have a champion. He will feed them and shepherd them, leading them to green pastures. This leader will serve the people.
Christians discern Micah’s prophecy as speaking of Jesus – which is why we look at Scriptures like this one during the season of Advent. Just as the ancient Jews needed hope and the promise of a different ruler, so today we, too, need hope and the anticipation of security, peace, and goodwill.
Christ’s leadership and power is different than earthly politicians and officials. Over the centuries, Israel and Judah were so filled with bad kings and self-serving leadership, that Christ’s disciples could barely conceive of anything different. So, Jesus said to them:
“You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Mark 10:42-45, NIV)
A Shepherd Leader Is Coming
The people of Micah’s day needed to see beyond their terrible circumstances and to realize hope – better days ahead with food, peace, and protection. We, too, feel the insecurity and the anxiety of living in today’s world. We want leaders to be wise and just toward the vulnerable, the poor, and the displaced. Yet, while we look to elections and politicians for hope, the prophet Micah is jumping up and down, pointing us to a different leader – a shepherd leader.
Micah says the shepherd leader will come from Bethlehem. When Micah gave his message, King David had been dead for nearly three-hundred years. The nation had strayed far from those days when David led the people with God’s covenant love and kindness. Yet, another shepherd leader is coming and will bring restoration, renewal, revival, and hope!
“Bethlehem” is two Hebrew words put together: beth is “house,” and, lechem is “bread.” Bethlehem means “house of bread.” God communicated to the people that the coming shepherd leader will provide food and care for them.
The Bread of Life
Jesus is the Bread of Life. He generously feeds us so that we will offer both physical and spiritual bread to others. Jesus satisfies all our hungers and cravings in this life. We may not wonder where our next meal is coming from, nor struggle with going to bed hungry. Yet, we hunger for security in our world, satisfaction in our daily activities, loved ones to know Jesus, and for peace. Our spiritual stomachs growl, hungering for spiritual food. Many are spiritually starving because they are searching for peace and goodwill in everyplace but Jesus.
“I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never go hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty…. All those the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never drive away. For I have come down from heaven not to do my will but to do the will of him who sent me. And this is the will of him who sent me, that I shall lose none of all those he has given me but raise them up at the last day. For my Father’s will is that everyone who looks to the Son and believes in him shall have eternal life, and I will raise them up at the last day.” (John 6:35-40, NIV)
Satisfaction, contentment, and peace have come from the most unlikely sources: Bethlehem and Nazareth. Can anything good come from villages in Judea that don’t even show up on most maps in the ancient world? Peace, hope, and goodwill can and do come from the least expected places and people.
Joni Eareckson Tada and Corrie Ten Boom are two women that changed their worlds, despite being ordinary people with weakness. The two of them once met many years ago. Joni remembers the encounter:
“I relive each moment of my visit with Corrie after she was paralyzed by a stroke. Helpless, and for the most part dependent, I felt our mutual weakness. Yet I am certain neither of us had ever felt stronger. It makes me think of the Cross of Christ–a symbol of weakness and humiliation, yet at the same time, a symbol of victory and strength…. A wheelchair may confine a body that is wasting away. But no wheelchair can confine the soul that is inwardly renewed day by day. For paralyzed people can walk with the Lord. Speechless people can talk with the Almighty. Sightless people can see Jesus. Deaf people can hear the Word of God. And those like Corrie, their minds shadowy and obscure, can have the very mind of Christ.”
The Good Shepherd
Jesus Christ is our peace. He was not born in the halls of power, did not attend the best schools, or make lots of money. Nothing on his earthly resume was remarkable enough for anyone to seek him for any leadership position. And yet, Jesus stands and shepherds the flock in the strength of the Lord, providing everything we need.
“I am the good shepherd; I know my sheep and my sheep know me—just as the Father knows me and I know the Father—and I lay down my life for the sheep. I have other sheep that are not of this sheep pen. I must bring them also. They too will listen to my voice, and there shall be one flock and one shepherd. The reason my Father loves me is that I lay down my life—only to take it up again.” (John 10:14-17, NIV)
Through Jesus there is peace – financial peace, emotional peace, relational peace, social peace, and spiritual peace. Jesus is the One who brings a full-orbed wholeness and wellness to our lives, no matter the situation. Jesus is the shepherd leader who brings peace amidst any and every situation this world throws at us.
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. (Isaiah 40:11, NIV)
The prophet Ezekiel prophesied in a similar situation as Micah:
For this is what the Sovereign Lord says: “I myself will search for my sheep and look after them. As a shepherd looks after his scattered flock when he is with them, so will I look after my sheep. I will rescue them from all the places where they were scattered…. They will lie down in good grazing land, and there they will feed in a rich pasture on the mountains of Israel. I myself will tend my sheep and have them lie down. I will search for the lost and bring back the strays. I will bind up the injured and strengthen the weak, but the sleek and the strong I will destroy. I will shepherd the flock with justice.” (Ezekiel 34:11-16, NIV)
There is something yet we must do. Jesus said:
“The work of God is this: to believe in the one he has sent…. I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever. This bread is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world…. Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you…. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me, and I in him…. The person who feeds on this bread will live forever.” (John 6:29, 51-59, NIV)
We are to ingest Jesus. We must be filled with him. Jesus comes into the very depths of our lives to nourish us. Jesus is our food and drink, our peace, our shepherd, and our king. Believing in Jesus is not simply a matter of agreeing with him or being his fan. Faith in Christ means to give our lives to him. The greatest Christmas gift we can give this season is the gift of our lives to Jesus Christ, the promised Messiah.
Blessed Lord Jesus, many have strayed far from your flock – taking matters into their own hands and doing things their own way. Many have let their love grow cold and have chosen to feed in pastures that will never satiate their hunger. May they believe that you died on the cross for all the messed up things done, and good things left undone without you. You rose from death to give them life. Please forgive us all, change our lives, and show us how to know you. Amen.