Isaiah 9:18-10:4 – The Reality in Front of Us

Surely wickedness burns like a fire;
    it consumes briers and thorns,
it sets the forest thickets ablaze,
    so that it rolls upward in a column of smoke.
By the wrath of the Lord Almighty
    the land will be scorched
and the people will be fuel for the fire;
    they will not spare one another.
On the right they will devour,
    but still be hungry;
on the left they will eat,
    but not be satisfied.
Each will feed on the flesh of their own offspring:
    Manasseh will feed on Ephraim, and Ephraim on Manasseh;
    together they will turn against Judah.

Yet for all this, his anger is not turned away,
    his hand is still upraised.

Woe to those who make unjust laws,
    to those who issue oppressive decrees,
to deprive the poor of their rights
    and withhold justice from the oppressed of my people,
making widows their prey
    and robbing the fatherless.
What will you do on the day of reckoning,
    when disaster comes from afar?
To whom will you run for help?
    Where will you leave your riches?
Nothing will remain but to cringe among the captives
    or fall among the slain.

Yet for all this, his anger is not turned away,
    his hand is still upraised. (New International Version)

There are times when God has some very hard things to say.

The Lord does get angry. And that’s a good thing.

The Love/Anger Reality of God

God’s anger and wrath are a form of God’s love. A heartless unloving god is fickle and unconcerned for much of the evil which happens in the world. Conversely, a loving God is not okay with wicked persons having their way. A loving God’s anger is kindled against injustice. A loving God doesn’t long put up with people oppressing other people, and taking advantage of them.

So, this is what the Old Testament prophets are all about – communicating and calling people to change their ways because they are harming others. And when the harming and the hurting is done purposefully and callously, then the ire of a holy God is raised. The Lord will not contend with this sort of attitude and action.

The language of judgment, in today’s Old Testament prophetic lesson, is an invitation for us to take a very hard look at the reality which was responsible for such an angry response from God.

The Social/Economic Reality of Both the Prophet’s World and Today’s World

God expects justice, to have people helping one another thrive and flourish in this life, to be concerned for the common good of all persons, not just some. In Isaiah’s day, all that God saw was greed and selfishness, injustice and corruption. And God was not okay with it. The unjust systems and practices were a failure of the people to live up to the Lord’s expectations for righteous living.

Sadly, issues of justice and righteousness are still relevant in our world today. Throughout the earth, this very day, the powerless are being exploited; the rich get wealthier at the cost of the poor; greed, corruption, outsourcing, and unjust legal systems are the norm and not the exception.

Much of the world gloomily faces racism, poverty, gender injustice, violence, famine, health disparities and inequities. And so called “religious” folk are at the forefront of ensuring that these evils continue to persist. So, why would not a holy God become infuriated at such a situation!?

A 12th century German depiction of Isaiah the prophet

The Religious Reality of Isaiah’s Day and Our Day

The religious reality of Isaiah’s day is not so far off from our own today. People were, and are, engaging in forms of spiritual and/or religious activity while being completely devoid of justice. Folks attend religious gatherings and believe in God – and treat others unjustly. They talk of faith in the Lord, while trusting in wealth and assets.

It was, and is, a world where people bow before their own works and ingenuity, focusing their attention on money and power. It’s a world with no room for the God of the Bible and true divine justice.

Far too many “believers” espouse unethical leaders and turn a blind eye to morally bankrupt leadership. Far too many religious folk want what they want, with no regard for the needs of others.

The Divine Reality of God’s Pathos

We as people need to contend with a God who is a profoundly emotional Being.

God is moved and affected by what happens in the world. The Lord’s anger and judgment is aroused because of God’s love and compassion.

God both binds up the injuries of people, as well as inflicts wounds. This ought not be surprising. After all, we readily understand, through our extensive healthcare systems, that medical interventions and surgeries are needed, and that they hurt.

A God of justice is, of course, angered by ethical violations. The Lord is rightly upset that the world often falls so woefully short of instituting a just social, economic, and political order for all citizens to enjoy.

Everyone must deal with the God who is not a brain-on-a-stick but has a deep heart for people everywhere to experience truth, justice, righteousness, salvation, and love.

Conclusion

Yes, there is a coming reality in which a new world will emerge. For the Christian, this occurs when Christ returns to judge the living and the dead. Complete deliverance from sin, death, and hell shall be realized.

But we aren’t there yet. We still need to cope with the world as it is today, and deal with it’s failures, shortcomings, and sins.

There is currently a massive need to be attentive to the needy, to proclaim the gospel to all nations, and to be involved in reforming unjust systems in our cities, communities, and countries. Salvation is meant for the whole person, not just the spiritual part.

Therefore, we have a choice as to how we will approach the world.

Will we withdraw from it? Will we engage it, only to take advantage of others within it? Or will we participate with God in transforming it?

  • Will we hear the cries of the oppressed?
  • Will we live out God’s commitment to the poor, the weak, and the sick?
  • Will we work for economic and social equity?
  • Will we break the bonds of injustice?
  • Will we help people to reach their full potential?
  • Will we preach good news?
  • Will we suffer with those who suffer and show solidarity with the weak?
  • Will we be truly spiritual folk who invest in the concerns of humanity?
  • Will we take up our cross and follow the Lord in being suffering servants for a lost world in need of God and God’s justice?

The reality in front of us is one which demands confrontation, participation, and reformation. Will you do it?

Blessed and holy God and Father of all, it is your will that all people be gathered together as one family in yourself. Fill the hearts of humanity with the fire of your love and with the desire to ensure justice for all. By sharing the good gifts that you give us, may we secure an equality for all our brothers and sisters throughout the world. May there be an end to division, strife and war. May there be a dawning of a just society built on love and peace. We ask this in the name of Jesus, our Lord. Amen.

Jeremiah 3:1-5 – Spiritual Adultery

“If a man divorces a woman
    and she goes and marries someone else,
he will not take her back again,
    for that would surely corrupt the land.
But you have prostituted yourself with many lovers,
    so why are you trying to come back to me?”
    says the Lord.
“Look at the shrines on every hilltop.
    Is there any place you have not been defiled
    by your adultery with other gods?
You sit like a prostitute beside the road waiting for a customer.
    You sit alone like a nomad in the desert.
You have polluted the land with your prostitution
    and your wickedness.
That’s why even the spring rains have failed.
    For you are a brazen prostitute and completely shameless.
Yet you say to me,
    ‘Father, you have been my guide since my youth.
Surely you won’t be angry forever!
    Surely you can forget about it!’
So you talk,
    but you keep on doing all the evil you can.” (New Living Translation)

We all have needs. 

As humans, each one of us has a deep hunger for love, intimacy, attention, affirmation, and encouragement. When these needs are met within gracious and loving relationships, especially in the marital bond, then there is genuine happiness and flourishing. 

But when our deep wants go unmet over a stretch of time, smiles are replaced with furrowed brows and confident strides give way to slumped shoulders.

We feel deeply and are moved at a visceral level because we are made in the image and likeness of G-d – a G-d who feels and has great emotion. 

Perhaps we too often think of G-d as some disembodied ethereal brain without any feelings. I hope today’s Old Testament lesson puts a collar on such notions. G-d entered into a loving covenant relationship with Israel. Yet, over time, the people looked for their relational, emotional, and spiritual needs to be met in other gods rather than the One true G-d. 

And it pained G-d’s heart.

G-d felt deeply about the people turning away to pursue other gods. The Lord responded to the people like a jilted lover, agonized by their acting like a prostitute – looking for their intimate needs to be satisfied elsewhere. 

It seems to me G-d was so profoundly hurt because the Lord knows that our deepest and greatest needs can only really be met through the divine covenant relationship. People need G-d.

To put it in the stark terms of Jeremiah’s prophecy: 

  • Are we playing the part of a harlot, running after all kinds of other relationships and things that we wrongheadedly believe will meet the needs of our lives? 
  • Do we sell ourselves to others in the misguided belief that we will find true happiness? 
  • Have we sought other lovers and forsaken our first love of the Divine? 

Everyone has a legitimate need for attention, love, and relational connection. The problem arises whenever we seek to meet those needs in illegitimate ways. That’s what we call “sin.”

The most important thing in life is not our job position, our social status, or even whether we are married with family. What matters most is the kind of person you are – it’s all about who you become. Because that’s what you will take into eternity. You and I are unceasing spiritual beings with an eternal destiny in G-d’s great universe.

Spiritual prostitution – and faith communities acting like spiritual brothels – are far beneath who we are and how we were designed by our Creator.

The pathos of G-d calls us to better than hanging out in a dark emotional shame lounge of sordid characters drinking cheap dandelion wine and smoking nasty cut-rate cigars in smelly old leisure suits.

We belong to G-d.

Our place is in the wide-open sunlit rooms of G-d’s kingdom. We have been adopted into G-d’s family and there is no longer any need for walking the streets and going into dive bars, looking for a quick fix of some damning elixir which promises life.

It behooves us all to become aware and connect with our longings and needs, and thereby allowing the G-d who delights to meet those needs into the core of our being.

Know who you really are. Because in that knowing, there is eternal life.

Jealous God, you are zealous for your presence to be known in the lives of all your creatures. Help me to be aware of the deepest needs of my life. May I find in you the desire of my heart and let you fill me with your infinite grace, love, mercy, and attention so that I will know true peace and joy. Amen.

Hebrews 10:26-31 – On Rejecting Divine Love

 If we deliberately keep on sinning after we have received the knowledge of the truth, no sacrifice for sins is left, but only a fearful expectation of judgment and of raging fire that will consume the enemies of God.Anyone who rejected the law of Moses died without mercy on the testimony of two or three witnesses. How much more severely do you think someone deserves to be punished who has trampled the Son of God underfoot, who has treated as an unholy thing the blood of the covenant that sanctified them, and who has insulted the Spirit of grace? For we know him who said, “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” and again, “The Lord will judge his people.”It is a dreadful thing to fall into the hands of the living God. (New International Version)

Love isn’t all rainbows and unicorns. Sometimes it’s downright tough, unabashedly truthful, and concerned for appropriate justice.

Love is compassionate, kind, and full of good deeds. Love is also subversive. Love takes a breach in relations seriously. Love announces that the hurt which has happened is not to be accepted as normal. Love is a refusal to settle for what is.

So, whenever God’s people drift away and slide into unhealthy or damaging ways of living, God’s love is not okay with it.

There’s a reason why we feel emotional pain. That’s because God feels pain. We don’t have to go very far into that thick book, the Bible, to find the hurt:

The Lord saw that the human beings on the earth were very wicked and that everything they thought about was evil. He was sorry he had made human beings on the earth, and his heart was filled with pain. (Genesis 6:5-6, NCV)

There is perhaps no more awful pain than being brokenhearted. A thousand kidney stones are not as painful as becoming heartsick over a relationship gone awry. Love can be an affliction – a deep ache which longs for wholeness, integrity, connection, and unity.

Perhaps we have neglected how much God hurts and longs for prodigal people to return in love to a divine relationship of grace. Just because God is always content, happy, and celebrating within perfect Trinitarian Love does not mean that God isn’t also profoundly sad, full of grief, and gazing from heaven, watching and waiting for sinful humanity to come to their senses.

God’s wrath exists because of God’s love.

God doesn’t paper over humanity’s guilt and shame and pretend it isn’t there. Instead, God has gone to the ultimate length to realize a restored relationship with fallen people. God got down in the trenches with us, in the person of Jesus, and dwelt among us – willing to suffer and die for us. Grace is most certainly free; however, it is anything but cheap.

Therefore, to know this great Love, then spurn it, is much more than agonizingly painful – it isn’t right. The preacher in the New Testament book of Hebrews captures the pathos of God against all that separates people from such perfect Love.

To renege on a commitment to Jesus is tantamount to crucifying him all over again.

This is an emotional and spiritual pain which transcends any human disappointment or failed friendship. Because God’s heart is so large, so God’s agony over defiant persons who turn from Love is immense beyond what we can even imagine.

Yes, it is a dreadful thing to fall into the hands of the Living God. Those who hate ought to beware. The ones trampling God’s moral law and ethical will into the ground, like some animal dung, ought not to think they are outside the reach of Divine Love, complete with Divine Wrath purging the resentment and rancor from Earth.

The warning of the preacher is of rejecting the spirit of Love and replacing it with the ancient evil spirt of hubris, animosity, and fear. Perfect Love drives out fear, restores comity, and embraces humility.

We are responsible for our own transgressions against others; our own failures to love as we ought; and our own neglect of God. Therefore, we must forsake willful and deliberate treatment of God and others by denigrating the work of the Spirit and attributing evil intentions to them.

If we focus on loving God and neighbor, then there is no room for apostasy, for lashing out and being an evangelist of wickedness. By clarifying and focusing on what matters most; being non-retaliatory; and reminding oneself of divine Love, we can cultivate a spirit of grace and forsake the hateful spirit.

Whenever we are wounded by another, or even by God, holding onto the hurt only causes gangrene of the soul. Yet, through forsaking all forms of violent and destructive language and behavior, and embracing the wounds of Christ, we can experience healing – even if our present adverse circumstance does not change.

So, be kind to yourself and others. Allow God’s kindness to penetrate the deep portions of your heart. Live a life of grace. Why be punished for acting like a foolish person? If you must suffer, suffer for doing good, not evil.

O Lord God, I confess and acknowledge your infinite mercy and goodness to me, and my ingratitude for such grace shown. You have saved me and made me your own child, and an heir of heaven. And I end up ignoring your gracious blessings, giving into temptation, and treating faith like a paper plate to be trashed when I’m done with it. I am truly sorry for my offenses toward you and admit my failure to observe your goodness. Accept my imperfect repentance, forgive my wickedness, purify my uncleanness, strengthen my weakness, heal my unstable spirit, and let your divine Love rule in my heart, through the love of Jesus Christ. Amen.

Amos 8:1-7 – A Prophet’s Perspective on the Powerful and the Poor

This is what the Almighty Lord showed me: a basket of ripe summer fruit.

He asked, “What do you see, Amos?”

“A basket of ripe summer fruit,” I answered.

Then the Lord said to me, “My people Israel are now ripe. I will no longer overlook what they have done. On that day, the songs of the temple will become loud cries,” declares the Almighty Lord. “There will be dead bodies scattered everywhere. Hush!”

Listen to this, those who trample on the needy
and ruin those who are oppressed in the world.
You say to yourselves,
“When will the New Moon Festival be over
so that we can sell more grain?
When will the day of rest—a holy day, be over
so that we can sell more wheat?
We can shrink the size of the bushel baskets,
increase the cost,
and cheat with dishonest scales.
We can buy the poor with money
and the needy for a pair of sandals.
We can sell the husks mixed in with the wheat.”

The Lord has sworn an oath by Jacob’s pride:
“I will never forget anything that they have done.” (God’s Word Translation)

I’ve been in the church most of my life. I have listened to thousands of sermons, as well as preaching thousands of them myself. I can count on both hands how many times I’ve heard a sermon from one of the twelve minor prophets in the Bible. Although I personally have preached on them more times than that, it still pales in comparison with how many sermons I’ve preached from the New Testament gospels or epistles.

This, I believe, is an indictment on us, especially those with privilege and power. If you add the major prophets, we have sixteen books contained in Holy Scripture calling out powerful and influential people’s oppression of others. To overlook such a girth of text is to stick our fingers in our ears and refuse to listen to God.

Those with power, position, and privilege must continually be vigilant to use such influence for the benefit of all persons – not just themselves or people just like them. The books of the prophets make it quite plain that God cares about justice. God will uphold the needy. The Lord will stand with the oppressed. If we fail to share a divine sense of justice and injustice, there will be hell to pay.

“Extreme poverty anywhere is a threat to human security everywhere.”

Kofi Annan

God is longsuffering. The Lord patiently awaits us to pay attention. Yet, eventually, that patience will run its course. A prophet will be sent to voice God’s concerns. Like a basket of ripe fruit now finally ready to be eaten, so God’s justice is ripe and ready for action.

The prophet Amos delivered a scathing message to the ancient Israelites about their total disregard for the poor and needy in the land. The people in positions of authority and power only looked on the less fortunate as commodities – as pawns to be taken advantage of for the rich merchants. 

Because the wealthy never took the time to listen to the poor, God would not listen to them. Judgment was coming, and it would not go so well for the power brokers of society who only thought of their business and squeezing others for more money.

The bald fact of the matter is that few people rush to have poor folk as their friends. Those in poverty are often overlooked and disregarded. Either they are ignored altogether or are given hand-outs and services without ever having any significant human contact. Even when there is help, it comes from a distance.

In other words, those in authority rarely take the time to listen and get to know the real face of poverty. If there isn’t a photo opportunity, then encounters with the poor are not likely to happen with politicians, or anyone else. After all, so many are busy making money, checking stock portfolios, and considering how to get bigger market shares…. 

Oh, my, perhaps we have an answer as to why there is no revival in the land. God shows such solidarity with the poor that to ignore them is to ignore him.  No matter our financial picture and outlook, every one of us can grace the poor with the gift of time and listening.  For in doing so we might just be listening to the voice of God.

Gracious God, you are found everywhere – both the halls of power, and the back alleys of slums.  As I seek you more and more, may I see the face of Jesus in everyone I encounter, whether rich or poor so that I can share the gift of life with them all.  Amen.