Obey with Integrity and Love (Psalm 15)

God, who gets invited
    to dinner at your place?
How do we get on your guest list?

 “Walk straight,
    act right,
        tell the truth.

“Don’t hurt your friend,
    don’t blame your neighbor;
        despise the despicable.

“Keep your word even when it costs you,
    make an honest living,
        never take a bribe.

“You’ll never get
blacklisted
if you live like this.” (The Message)

Nearly all of us had to work hard to get good grades in school. Each schoolyear began with a blank slate; then, what we did with learning the lessons determined the grade.

So, it’s unthinkable for many of us to consider that we all begin God’s school with A’s. We’re all 4.0 students. There’s only a lower grade if we neglect to do the things necessary as an A student. And, as it turns out, the most important things are a matter of basic human kindness and respect for others.

At the end-of-the-year banquet, awards are given. If we’ve done what’s expected, then the invitation to come to the front and receive the award is assured.

Yet, if anyone has gone out of their way to be deliberately stupid and ignore what’s right, then they aren’t going to show up at the banquet. They’ll dismiss it as a waste of their time and blabber about how they don’t be around a bunch do-gooder pricks and Abe Lincoln’s, blah-blah-blah.

Integrity, honesty, kindness, accountability, and commitment matter. Virtue shows itself through the practice of obedience.

We might get hung up on obedience for a few reasons:

  1. Many Westerners, especially Americans, have a strong anti-authoritarian strain; obedience smacks them as something negative. For some, they would rather stick-it-to-the-man than obey. Even Christians might sacralize their disobedience by linking obedience to law – as if gospel and obedience are antithetical.
  2. A lot of people have been personally hurt because they tried to do the right thing by obeying their authorities, but it ended badly. Now, they aren’t so sure about the whole obedience thing.
  3. We just plain don’t want anyone else telling us what to do and not do; and that includes not wanting to obey God. So, we focus on the freedom to do what we want, to the exclusion of obedience.

Yet, there’s no way to get around the pervasive reality of obedience to Torah, to Yahweh. Obedience is both the glue which holds a people together, as well as the major means of expressing love to God and others.

Jesus said, “If you love me, obey my commandments.” (John 14:15, NLT)

Love and obedience go together in Holy Scripture like a hand in a glove. Jesus insisted that upholding Torah and loving others is by obedience to divine commands.

When Jesus first began his teaching and healing ministry, he sat all the people down who were following him and gave them a summary of the Old Testament understanding of God’s righteousness. These are the things, Jesus explained, that characterize a person who loves God:

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of God. 

Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted. 

Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. 

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. 

Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy. 

Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.  Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called sons of God. 

Blessed are they who are persecuted for righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of God (Matthew 5:12-17, NIV).

Obedient believers are characterized by their:

  • Authentic humility
  • Deep concern over sin, to the point of tears
  • Gentle and meek spirit toward others
  • Intense desire for personal righteousness and corporate justice
  • Daily life of mercy, purity, and peacemaking
  • Willingness to accept adversity as part of the spiritual life

“Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: Love your neighbor as yourself.”

Jesus (Matthew 22:36-40, NIV)

Humanity is meant for wholeness, integration, and alignment of head, heart, and gut – with the glue of obedient love. We are designed to have all of life in parity and balance – work, play, family, and faith – because God is Lord of it all, not just the spiritual parts.

Historic confessional Christianity acknowledges that obedience is both duty and delight – and they go together in perfect harmony.

Believers consider it a both a high charge and a wonderful privilege to love the Lord with a life devoted to obeying divine commands.

It’s just that sometimes we have our lives so planned and pre-determined that when God’s Spirit shows up to take us to a place of obedience, we struggle to realize what’s happening. And we miss what the Lord is doing in this world. 

At other times, we read scriptural commands and feel the gentle nudging of God’s Spirit, yet we either cannot or will not respond out of fear, busyness, or grief. 

Then there are times in which we are attentive to God’s Word and Spirit, seeking to obey – only to mess up and fail at it. It can leave us wondering if God could ever really do anything in or through us.

The truth is this: Love conquers all. Grace overcomes everything. Mercy never fails.

We are here on this earth because of how much the Lord is devoted to us. Even though we often walk the spiritual road in a three-steps-forward-two-steps-backward kind of way, God accommodates to our weakness. 

So, we keep learning the ways of the Lord under the tutelage of God’s Spirit – who patiently and powerfully works within us so that God’s kingdom breaks into this world and God’s will is done on earth as it is in heaven.

Blessed God, I seek not my own will but to fulfill your will in my everyday life. Enable me and strengthen me for this sacred duty and delight, in the power of your Spirit. Amen.

Out of the Slimy Pit (Psalm 40:1-11)

He Lifted Me by Nate Owens

I put all my hope in the Lord.
    He leaned down to me;
    he listened to my cry for help.
He lifted me out of the pit of death,
    out of the mud and filth,
    and set my feet on solid rock.
        He steadied my legs.
He put a new song in my mouth,
    a song of praise for our God.
Many people will learn of this and be amazed;
    they will trust the Lord.
Those who put their trust in the Lord,
    who pay no attention to the proud
    or to those who follow lies,
    are truly happy!

You, Lord my God!
    You’ve done so many things—
    your wonderful deeds and your plans for us—
        no one can compare with you!
    If I were to proclaim and talk about all of them,
        they would be too numerous to count!
You don’t relish sacrifices or offerings;
    you don’t require entirely burned offerings or compensation offerings—
    but you have given me ears!
So I said, “Here I come!
    I’m inscribed in the written scroll.
    I want to do your will, my God.
    Your Instruction is deep within me.”
I’ve told the good news of your righteousness
    in the great assembly.
    I didn’t hold anything back—
        as you well know, Lord!
I didn’t keep your righteousness only to myself.
    I declared your faithfulness and your salvation.
I didn’t hide your loyal love and trustworthiness
    from the great assembly.

So now you, Lord—
    don’t hold back any of your compassion from me.
Let your loyal love and faithfulness always protect me. (Common English Bible)

Every follower of the Lord has a powerful story of God’s grace in lifting them out of a slimy pit experience. 

We live in a profoundly broken world; and no one is exempt from its effects upon us. Whether physical problems, emotional trials, or relational hardships, there is always something going on in our lives – with the added pull toward trusting in things other than God. 

The temptation to say unjust words and do unjust actions is always over-promised and under-delivered. 

It’s easy to get sucked-in to poor decisions and be stuck in an empty hole with seemingly no way out. We often find ourselves slipping into a slimy pit because of our own bad decisions, as well as by no fault of our own. 

Living in a fallen world means that we inevitably experience troubles and hardships.

So, what do we do if we find ourselves in a slimy pit?

Look for Hope

David, the psalmist, waited patiently for the Lord. With great expectation, he fully anticipated God to act on his behalf. The sort of patience he practiced was an intense waiting – a waiting filled with longing and expectant hope, a patience that kept looking and praying and seeking.

The reason believers in Jesus keep hoping beyond hope is that we know that God is ultimately the One who delivers from the pit. 

But what if you have been looking for deliverance from the slimy pit experience and you have not seen it come to pass? 

Expectantly expect God to act. Wait patiently. Do not give up. Keep praying and watching. Like the father in the story of the prodigal son, keep looking out the window, waiting for the son to return, and picture the deliverance coming – because our waiting is not in vain.

flickr.com/photos/joshtinpowers

The psalmist, David, was eventually delivered. The Lord leaned down to him. God listened and lifted him. The Lord God set him on a firm place to stand and put a new song in his mouth. 

This was not only a personal matter for David; it was also an occasion that other people needed to know about.

Look for God

We all must finally come to the end of ourselves and look up. Whenever the deliverance doesn’t come quickly, we may look to other people or things to give us the freedom we long for. It’s easy to become impatient and begin searching for answers in everything else but God. 

Yet, if we will let patient hope have its way, we are blessed when we trust in the Lord.

In all my years of churchgoing as a kid, I had never read my Bible. But God was gracious to me. I remembered all those sermons I heard about Jesus. I gained a newfound sense of my own inner darkness, as well as the desire to read God’s Word. And God saved me. 

My circumstances did not change, but I did. My loneliness turned to joy; my aimlessness turned into purpose; and my selfishness became a deep concern for others. My heart had been black, and what God did to change it was nothing less than miraculous.

Look Within

The person who looks for hope and seeks God is also a person who looks into their own heart and there finds the attitude which God will bless. 

Blessing does not come from great sacrifice, but by syncing one’s heart with the heart of God. 

The Lord cares little about how much money or stuff you have, or how many sacrifices were made for God; that’s because God wants your heart, your mind, your will, and your emotions. In other words, God wants you! 

And God desires you because the Lord made you with a heart that beats for the same things God cares about: justice, mercy, and humility.

If you and I will but look within at the very spirit God has put within us, we shall find resources beyond what we can ask or think.

Look to Bless Others

We possess more than a personal faith which is to benefit ourselves; we also have an equal responsibility to bless the community with our experiences of what God has done in our lives. 

The telling of stories about what God has done for us is a necessary part of building up the church and helping others move forward in faith, hope, and love.

The psalmist proclaimed his testimony in the great assembly, that is, publicly. This isn’t about standing behind a microphone in front of lots of people; it’s about being so touched by God that we cannot keep our mouths shut about the Lord’s deliverance on our behalf.

So, let’s not shelve the idea of giving testimony to others as if it were only for pastors, missionaries, or other very religious people. 

When a person decides to play hockey in -20 degrees below zero weather, we might think that person is a little crazy;  but, hey, we reason, if they love hockey that much, more power to them. 

We must not think about Christianity in the same way, that if a person is passionate about Jesus and desires to tell others about what God has done for them, more power to them; just don’t expect me to go out in the cold and do that because it isn’t my thing. 

Christianity is a life, not a hobby; it’s about humble service, and not a means to look respectable; it cannot be reduced to a few practices, such as church attendance or putting money in an offering plate.

Christianity is a relationship with God through Jesus. Try looking at marriage as simply showing up for supper and paying the bills and see how far that gets you.

Look to Get Lost to Get Found

We may become obsessed with getting out of our slimy pit of illness, infirmity, pain, adversity, hardship, or discord. If that happens, we will likely lose our proper focus.

Instead, get lost in the wonder of God. The Lord does wondrous things when we are immersed in God’s wonders.

“Any of you who try to save the life you have will lose it. But you who give up your life for me will find true life.” Jesus (Matthew 16:25, ERV)

New life comes from a change of heart, not a change of circumstances. Wherever there is a firm reliance on God; a glad obedience to God; and a readiness to give testimony to God’s actions, then we are living into the spirit of today’s psalm.

Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world, have mercy on us.
Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world, have mercy on us.
Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world, grant us your peace. Amen.

Epiphany of the Lord (Matthew 2:1-12)

After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.”

When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him. When he had called together all the people’s chief priests and teachers of the law, he asked them where the Messiah was to be born. “In Bethlehem in Judea,” they replied, “for this is what the prophet has written:

“‘But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
    are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for out of you will come a ruler
    who will shepherd my people Israel.’”

Then Herod called the Magi secretly and found out from them the exact time the star had appeared. He sent them to Bethlehem and said, “Go and search carefully for the child. As soon as you find him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship him.”

After they had heard the king, they went on their way, and the star they had seen when it rose went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they were overjoyed. On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their country by another route. (New International Version)

The light exists; it’s there. But not everyone likes it.

While many celebrate the light, such as Christians on the day of Epiphany, others wrap themselves in the cloak of darkness. There are various responses to Jesus as the Light of the World; not all of them are the same.

King Herod responds with anger

Herod was distressed with the news of a potential King of the Jews being born; he saw this as a threat to his rule. Herod, ever the narcissistic person who always sought to wipe out any threat to his throne, went over the top in seeking destroy Jesus. 

At the time of Christ’s birth, Herod had been the reigning king for about 30 years. During that time, his paranoia about losing power led him to kill his wife and three of his own sons because he saw them as threats to his authority. Herod feigned a desire to worship Christ, but this was really a sinister façade in order to get rid of Jesus by any means possible.

Jerusalem responds with anxiety

The people of Jerusalem felt that Jesus was going to upset the status quo. He was, for them, a threat to their security; any change within the system might cause Herod to take it out on them (which he had done before). 

Although the people were looking for a deliverer, they did not want things to shake up too much and arouse the Romans to abuse them.

Whenever we get caught up in maintaining the status quo, out of fear, then we have no room in the inn for Mary and Joseph. 

Always trying to keep people happy and not upset them is a tenuous way to live. Such an agenda will typically result in missing Jesus when he shows up. That’s because we’re not really looking for him to start with. 

For example, if our task as parents is to just keep our kids out of trouble, they’re going to miss Jesus; and if they find him, it will be in spite of us and not because of us. Yet, if our truest desire for them is to know Christ, then our prayers, our words, and our actions will reflect the ethics of God’s kingdom.

Religious leaders respond with apathy

The chief priests and teachers of the law had all the right answers; and responded to Herod’s questions with the correct information.

The sad part is that the guys who knew the most about Scripture, who actually had a handle on God’s law, were simply satisfied with that knowledge and nothing more. They seemed  unconcerned with getting off their butts and getting on their knees to worship the Son of God.

If we know the truth, we must act on it. Jesus wants people to worship in spirit and in truth. He wants more than a mere recognition; Jesus desires us.

The Magi respond with adoration

The Three Wise Men by He Qi

The Wise men, or Magi, were Gentiles and pagan astrologers (not kings). They devoted themselves to studying the stars and discerning what was happening. Because of this, they were often advisors and counselors to kings.

Some may find it scandalous that God used such persons, but that’s okay. The Lord typically uses the folks we believe are (or should be) unusable. Turns out it is the people such as the Magi that demonstrate their devotion and adoration through actual worship and giving of costly gifts.

Epiphany

Each year on January 6 in the Church Calendar, after the twelve days of Christmas, is the celebration of Epiphany. Christ’s coming to this earth as a child and becoming like us is much more than a baby in a manger.  Epiphany of the Lord helps to bring a vision and understanding of God’s glory to all kinds of people of the world.

The word “epiphany” means “manifestation” or “appearance” – which is exactly what happened with the Magi in visiting Jesus. The season of Epiphany has a special emphasis on the teaching and healing ministry of Jesus. The focus of these weeks is that salvation is not limited to Israel but extends to the Gentiles, as well.

With Epiphany’s light, we see that one of the most scandalous truths of Christianity is that God graces common ordinary people, who seem far from God, with the gift of Jesus. 

God grants life for all kinds of people – no matter their race, ethnicity, gender, class, or background. It’s a wondrous and astounding spiritual truth that God’s gracious concern is not limited to a certain type of person or a particular group of people.

Grace

Grace is and ought to be the guiding factor in how we interact with people. 

Losing sight of grace leads to being critical and defensive. Like King Herod of old, a graceless person becomes enamored with earthly power and control. But embracing grace leads to the humility of seeing the image of God in people quite different from us. 

Like the Apostle Peter, who learned in a vision to bring the gospel to non-Jews, old legalisms begin to wear away so that people from all walks of life can have access to Jesus and his gracious saving and healing ministry. (Acts 10-11:18)

Grace topples barriers and clears away unnecessary distinctions between others. Our appropriate response to such a grace is to glorify God for this marvelous and amazing work.

Light

A light was provided to lead the Magi to Jesus. Apart from God’s gracious intervention, they would have remained in darkness. 

This old broken world is enveloped in spiritual darkness. All kinds of people have no light at the end of the tunnel of their lives for hope and new life. Christ brings that light to those unable to see. And Jesus, in his teaching ministry, exhorted his followers not to hide their light but to let it shine for all to see. (Matthew 5:14-16)

Sometimes, maybe oftentimes, the best way to bring resolution to our own troubles and problems is through helping others make sense of their lives through the gracious light of Christ. Then, they can see an appearance, an epiphany, of what their lives could be in the gracious and benevolent rule and reign of God. 

In this season of Epiphany, let us journey with Jesus through his earthly upbringing, walk with him in his gracious ministry to people; and keep watch with him so that our own light does not grow dim.

Merciful God of life and light, you have gifted the Church through the goodness of your grace to be your hands; to do your work; to be your voice; to share your words; and to bring healing for broken lives. You have graciously gifted your people with the blessings of your Spirit, the power to transform lives and make all things new.

Now may our hearts receive, our mouths proclaim, our hands prepare for compassionate service so that the love we have will overflow into the hearts of others. May they receive your grace, your renewing Spirit, and your love, through Jesus Christ our Savior. Amen.

Sensing the Divine (Exodus 3:1-5)

The Burning Bush by Yoram Raanan

Now Moses was tending the flock of Jethro his father-in-law, the priest of Midian, and he led the flock to the far side of the wilderness and came to Horeb, the mountain of God. There the angel of the Lord appeared to him in flames of fire from within a bush. Moses saw that though the bush was on fire it did not burn up. So Moses thought, “I will go over and see this strange sight—why the bush does not burn up.”

When the Lord saw that he had gone over to look, God called to him from within the bush, “Moses! Moses!”

And Moses said, “Here I am.”

“Do not come any closer,” God said. “Take off your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy ground.” (New International Version)

The burning bush is one of those iconic objects and stories in Holy Scripture. Moses had an experience which changed his life, as well as the lives of all the Israelites then and now.

Having spent the first forty years of his life as a darling in the Egyptian court; and then the next forty years far from that life on the backside of the desert with a bunch of sheep; it’s an understatement to say that Moses did not expect or ever envision encountering God in a burning bush. The impossible has no possibility… Or does it?…

The experience of the burning bush fired the five senses of Moses:

  • See. There was the paradoxical sight of seeing fire in a bush that isn’t burning up.
  • Smell. All around there were the smells of sheep, the outdoors, and perhaps, even the lack of smelling burnt wood.
  • Hear. Listening to the voice and call of God from within the bush.
  • Taste. Spiritually and emotionally savoring God’s attentive justice toward the people.
  • Touch. Removing his sandals to feel the grounding of sacred space.

The story also comments on the senses of God, as well. Even though God is Spirit and is worshiped as such, God is alive with divine sensations:

  • See. Observing the approach of Moses, and the misery of the Israelites.
  • Smell. The stench of injustice wafting into God’s nostrils, bringing a strong divine reaction.
  • Hear. Listening to the cries of suffering and oppression amongst the people.
  • Taste. Anticipating the savor of showing mercy, justice, and righteousness.
  • Touch. A profound and holistic touching of Moses so that both he and the Israelites would never be the same again.

Through it all, the close identification between God and the people is expressed. The Lord feels the humiliation and pain of the Israelites – and vows to uproot them from the Egyptian factory farm of slavery and plant them firmly into rich Promised Land soil.

And what God promises to do, God has the authority and power to make good on.

Although experiencing all of this unbelievable sensory encounter, Moses knew it to be an impossible task in freeing so many Israelites from such a powerful Egyptian juggernaut.

After all, the people had their senses aflame, as well; and not in a good way:

  • See. The sight of family being worked to the bone; and cruelly treated.
  • Smell. The constant smell of bricks baking, mixed with the ever-present smell of death.
  • Hear. Listening day after day to the groans of people, just trying to survive under awful conditions.
  • Taste. Every day tasting the desert dust.
  • Touch. Overstimulated with handling tools to the point of hard callouses and dry, cracked, bloody hands.

Hundreds of years of backbreaking bondage to a national force so mighty that nothing can be done about it be broken…. Ah, but God specializes in systems of oppression and miserable people.

It is the Lord’s abilities which conquer the mightiest of foes and can extend mercy to the lowest and the least powerful. The entire Israelite situation was ripe for divine intervention and supernatural wonders to occur.

God will make a way where there seems to be no way. God works in ways which transcend our senses.

  • See. We are blind, but God gives us the gift of sight.
  • Smell. Our nostrils have become accustomed to the smell of death, but God’s aroma of life awakens us to new hope.
  • Hear. We are deaf, but God opens our ears with the sound of justice.
  • Taste. Our taste buds are shot with the gruel of poverty, but God causes our tongues to dance with the zest of mercy.
  • Touch. Our nerve endings are raw from cruel bondage, but God touches us with freedom.

You already intuitively know deep in your spirit that the impossible is possible with God. It’s never a question of God’s ability, but of God’s timing.

God is able and works the impossible in its proper time so that justice and mercy will have their full effect.

God of the impossible: I believe. Help me in my unbelief.

God of mercy: I receive. Help me in my denial.

God of justice: I accept. Help me in my rejection.

God of all time: I endure. Help me in my impatience.

God of All: I submit. Help me in my rebellion.

God of power and of might: I trust. Help me in my distrust.

God of our Lord Jesus Christ: I follow. Help me in my wandering.

God of the nations: Yes, you know that I love you. Yes, Lord, you know I love you. Lord, you know all things, and you know that I love you. So, yes, I will answer your call to go. Help me in my sending. Amen.