Psalm 116:1-2, 12-19 – A Testimony of Deliverance

psalm 116.1-2 pic

I love the Lord because he hears
my requests for mercy.
I’ll call out to him as long as I live,
because he listens closely to me….

What can I give back to the Lord
for all the good things he has done for me?
I’ll lift up the cup of salvation.
I’ll call on the Lord’s name.
I’ll keep the promises I made to the Lord
in the presence of all God’s people.
The death of the Lord’s faithful
is a costly loss in his eyes.

Oh yes, Lord, I am definitely your servant!
I am your servant and the son of your female servant—
you’ve freed me from my chains.
So I’ll offer a sacrifice of thanksgiving to you,
and I’ll call on the Lord’s name.
I’ll keep the promises I made to the Lord
in the presence of all God’s people,
     in the courtyards of the Lord’s house,
which is in the center of Jerusalem.

Praise the Lord! (CEB)

As the Church’s Prayer Book, the Psalms were originally crafted for public as well as personal use. The Psalter is meant to be prayed, sung, and spoken out loud. The Psalms address the human condition and encompass the full range of human emotion. There are times when we are so distressed that we are unable to form words – and the psalms help us say what is in our heart. There are also times when we are so elated that we have no words to express our joy. The psalms assist us with this, as well. Today’s psalm is such a response.

The psalmist is beside himself with appreciation and praise because of answered prayer. Although the he does not provide what that answer was, this psalm is a staple for the Jewish people at Passover to specifically thank the Lord for the deliverance from Egyptian slavery. The event appears less important than the reality that God listens.

The Lord hears the cry of the oppressed and bends his ear to catch our prayers.

Because of such mercy, the psalmist pledges fealty to the Lord and commits to following through with promises to God. “I love the Lord,” is the cry of his thankful heart. The psalmist gave public testimony that prayer does indeed change things. At times when our own prayers seem to just bounce off the ceiling, it is good to hear from another that the Lord still answers prayer – that life can be different than its present confusion.

When my dear wife had a spine surgery six years ago and awoke from it unable to move her legs, I prayed. I asked for mercy. I pleaded for grace. And I did it for hours at the foot of her hospital bed. I remember that I stubbornly would not accept the fact that she could not move her lower body.  And I decided to stand there and pray until I got an answer from God.

Eventually, I prayed myself asleep. My wife woke me up sometime in the early morning the next day. She told me to pull back the covers and look at her right big toe…. She could give it an ever-small twitch. We called the nurse, who was so excited that she called everyone she could get a hold of. With a dozen hospital staff huddled around the hospital bed, my wife proceeded to give that big toe a hearty move. The staff erupted with clapping, and I am not kidding when I say that we had a party with noise and shouts in a hospital room at 4am. Nobody cared we were going nuts. I certainly did not.

Yes, God is still in the business of answering prayer.

Through the hard times, the good times, and the confusing times, the Lord is our constant ballast for all seasons of life, whether good or bad. And I love God for that abiding presence. I can also give testimony that through all of the adverse situations my wife and I have faced, we have learned to stop, be still, and find that all we ever wanted we already have, even when everything changes.

Perhaps you are reading this today and feel some desperation, maybe some wondering, if God pays any attention to your plight. Yes, the Lord does. You are not alone. We all have times of needing freedom from whatever chains are keeping us in bondage. So, I offer this prayer for you….

O God, who in Jesus Christ called us out of the darkness and into your marvelous light; enable us always to declare your wonderful deeds, offer thanksgiving for your steadfast love, and eternally praise you with heart, soul, mind, and strength.

Eternal God, for the sake of Jesus, send your Holy Spirit to the person(s) praying along with me now who need healing of body and soul, or who seek deliverance from a difficult and debilitating situation. Be gracious to drive away all that is unjust and crippling and mercifully make whole that which is broken. Grant deliverance from the power of evil and provide true faith in Jesus Christ our Lord, who suffered on our behalf and rose from death so that we too can live with joy and peace in the Holy Spirit.

Merciful God, you are the source of all healing and wholeness. We give thanks to you for your love. As we wait in expectation for the coming of the day when Jesus shall return, when suffering and pain shall be no more, please reassure us by your Spirit of your mighty power and help us to trust in your great love.

May your unending compassion be poured out to these your people who long for your hope to explode within them – to the glory of Jesus Christ, your Son, our Savior, who with you and the Holy Spirit live and reign together, one God, now and forever. Amen.

Hebrews 13:20-21 – Conflict and Peace

Pretty Place Chapel Blue Ridge Mountains
Pretty Place Chapel in the Blue Ridge Mountains

May the God of peace,
who brought back the great shepherd of the sheep,
our Lord Jesus,
from the dead by the blood of the eternal covenant,

        equip you with every good thing to do his will,
by developing in us what pleases him through Jesus Christ.
To him be the glory forever and always. Amen. (CEB)

These verses are the benediction, that is, the blessing given at the end of a long letter to a group of struggling Jewish Christians. In fact, things were so difficult for these believers that they were giving serious consideration to reneging on their commitment to Christ. So, the author of Hebrews sent them an exhortation and an encouragement to remain true and steadfast to the faith.

What is needed is not a shrinking back from faith but instead an enduring faith which is sustainable for the long haul of a person’s life.

The believers had both inner and outer conflict. They were experiencing hardship and persecution in the form of confiscation of their property and public insults. The Christians had started out well, facing such trouble with confidence through standing side-by-side with others who were suffering as well as holding on to their vibrant faith.

Yet, over time, their resolve began to break down. A slow drift occurred. Eventually, they started to retreat from the helping of others. They emotionally and spiritually inched their way to becoming despondent to the point of questioning whether all this Christianity stuff was worth it. The outer conflict worked its way inside their souls and damaged their spirits. By the time the writer of Hebrews comes along, a group of Christians are stuck in discouragement.

It’s one thing to deal with trouble and hardship on one day, even two. It’s quite another thing when that difficulty does not let up – when days turn into weeks, weeks into months, even months into years.

There are times when peace seems to have about as much chance of being realized as winning the lottery.

Yet, God is the God of peace, real lasting harmonious spiritually restful peace. It was achieved through the life and death of Jesus. The peace Jesus has brought is so much more than the absence of conflict. God’s peace is freedom from fear and anxiety. It is a settled confidence deep down inside that God will ultimately make good on all his promises and that things will not always be this way.

Until that day comes, God is not sitting in some divine Lazy-Boy recliner watching old reruns of the Angels playing baseball. Rather, God is active through carefully, deliberately, and, to our occasional consternation, slowly equipping us and developing us into spiritually fortified people who do the will of God and please Jesus in everything they do and say. Jesus is the Great Shepherd of the sheep who will not lead us astray but will settle us in green pastures.

The word translated “equip” is a rich word (Greek καταρτίσαι, pronounced “cot-ar-tids-ay”) which means to set something straight. Picture a bone which has been broken and needs to be reset and have time to heal. That is what God is doing in his people – repairing broken spirits. This divine healing is equipping believers for a lifetime of handling adversity with faith, confidence, and endurance. The process, frankly, hurts and requires patience before healing and health come.

If God can raise the dead, he can most certainly handle any earthly trouble we are going through.

God is in the transformation business. Extreme makeovers are his specialty. He uses hard circumstances, troubles, and torments of our lives and bends them into divine tools to form and shape his people to both survive and thrive in the world.

Complaining spirits, blaming and shaming others, and impatience borne of unrealistic expectations are the evidence of damaged emotions, wounded souls, and weak faith. This is the antithesis of God. He’s not overlooking humanity with a divine *sigh* in exasperation. That’s because he is the God of peace who is bringing all things to a conclusion in Christ. Jesus will come to judge the living and the dead. The Holy Spirit is now and very presently active to heal damaged emotions, repair wounded souls, and strengthen faith.

In those times when God seems absent and prayers seem to bounce off the ceiling are the times that God is establishing peace and expanding our capacity for faith and patience.

Benediction, blessing, and doxology come through the dark night of the soul and not by avoiding it.

Soli Deo Gloria. To God be the Glory.

Almighty God,
all thoughts of truth and peace
proceed from you.
Kindle in the hearts of all people
the true love of peace.
Guide with your pure and peaceable wisdom
those who take counsel
for the nations of the earth;
that in tranquility your kingdom
may go forward,
till the earth is filled
with the knowledge of your love;
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

–From the Book of Common Order of the Church of Scotland, St. Andrew Press.

Click It Is Well with My Soul by TenTwoSix Music and arranged by David Wise.

Matthew 9:18-34 – Faith

Jesus healing the blind
Jesus Healing the Blind by Johann Heinrich Stöver, 1861

As Jesus went on from there, two blind men followed him, crying loudly, “Have mercy on us, Son of David!” When he entered the house, the blind men came to him; and Jesus said to them, “Do you believe that I am able to do this?” They said to him, “Yes, Lord.” Then he touched their eyes and said, “According to your faith let it be done to you.” And their eyes were opened. Then Jesus sternly ordered them, “See that no one knows of this.” But they went away and spread the news about him throughout that district.

After they had gone away, a demoniac who was mute was brought to him. And when the demon had been cast out, the one who had been mute spoke; and the crowds were amazed and said, “Never has anything like this been seen in Israel.” But the Pharisees said, “By the ruler of the demons he casts out the demons.” (NRSV)

In these days of staring into the face of pandemic, I often find myself uttering the ancient prayer of the Church: “Lord have mercy.  Christ have mercy.  Lord have mercy and grant us your peace.”  For me, the COVID-19 virus is getting real, real fast.  I feel the heaviness of hospital staff, and of families experiencing the weight of concern for loved ones with the virus.

It is in such topsy-turvy times as these that I come back again and again to deep spiritual convictions which inform what I do each day.  One of those underlying creeds is this:

Jesus is trustworthy, no matter whether my faith or the faith of others is small or great.

In our Gospel lesson for today, two blind men were healed according to their faith in Jesus.  The diverse healing accounts of Jesus in the New Testament, whether the faith was large or small in those healed, leads me to the conclusion that:

It isn’t faith itself that heals, saves, or transforms – it is Jesus.

What the healing accounts have in common in the Gospels is that they are directed to Jesus as the object of faith.  It isn’t about the level of faith, but about where the faith is placed.  For the Christian, faith itself doesn’t mean much if it isn’t in Jesus.  If I place a large and sincere faith in an inanimate object such as money; in a position of power; or, even in my own independence, my faith isn’t worth much.  If I have a huge faith in a doctor or a psychiatrist to heal my body or my mind, I will quickly discover there are limits to their abilities.  If I have a confident faith that my family will meet all my needs, my faith will eventually run into failure when they let me down.  That’s because the ultimate object of my faith is Jesus.  If all my faith eggs are in the church basket, my faith will eventually face a crisis because it is a misplaced faith.  Furthermore, the answer I provide for others is not simply getting them to attend church or to adopt my moral code. I believe Jesus heals, transforms, and delivers people from sickness, sin, trouble, and overwhelming circumstances in his own good time.

Jesus is the same yesterday, today, and forever.  (Hebrews 13:8)

We know with certainty that circumstances change, as everyday seems to bring new levels and permutations of unprecedented alterations to our lives – and through it all, Jesus remains as the ever-present Savior, seated at the right hand of God ceaselessly interceding on behalf of those who offer even the slightest mustard seed of faith.

Almighty God, you know that we have no power in ourselves to help ourselves: Keep me both outwardly in my body and inwardly in my soul, that I may be defended from all adversities which may happen to the body, and from all evil thoughts which may assault and hurt the soul; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, forever and ever.  Amen.

“Why, God!?”

why god

“Why, God!?” is a refrain expressed by all kinds of people and, most likely, by you at some point in your life.  That’s because we all face suffering, on some level.  The circumstances might vary from person to person, but we all have been touched by this fallen world and experience some sort of brokenness.

Brokenness of either/both body and soul comes in all shapes and sizes.  Yes, it sometimes is the result of our own foolish and/or self-destructive choices.  But sick bodies, broken spirits, and damaged souls are just as likely to occur simply because we live in this world that’s askew from how it should be.  In other words, sometimes we really are victims of disease, accidents, natural disasters, and mysterious evil that we have trouble putting a name to.

In such situations, it’s very normal of the human condition to cry: “Why, God!?”  I like honesty, and this is an honest question.  Personally, I don’t “poo-poo” people who are frank and sincere with God.  Yes, sometimes that question is only rhetorical – not really asking a question but expressing anger.  That’s okay, too, because God is more than big enough to handle a question asked in frustration, even rage.  Even a cursory reading of the book of Psalms reveals David’s emotions of not understanding many of his situations and exactly what he’d like to see happen.  Sometimes he pukes some awfully raw feelings onto God – and those emotionally charged words made their way as being a part of the Bible.

I get it.  Suffering is an unwanted companion, and we’d like to send it packing and have nothing to do with it.  Yet, suffering and the evil it can wreak is not outside the purview of God.  As heinous and as powerful as suffering might manifest itself, it is never beyond God’s capacity to touch it with resurrection power.

The answer to our “why?” question is, frankly, not usually answered – and even if it does get answered, sometimes we don’t like what we hear.  I want to make an observation about the New Testament Gospels and the life of Jesus, and I want you to consider it for a moment.  The observation is this:

Jesus never explained evil and suffering. 

Christ did not send out fliers and emails for a seminar on suffering from a divine perspective to be held at the downtown Jerusalem Hilton.  Instead, Jesus, the supreme Pastor, was present with people in their pain and wondering.  Jesus Christ did not provide cerebral answers to questions; he asked his own questions and filled people with God’s grace, forgiveness, and love.

Jesus encountered people in their concrete real-live struggles and trouble, and, when a group of five-thousand people were hungry, he asked, “Who will feed them?” and when folks were struggling with how to make ends-meet, “Where is your treasure?” and to those with misplaced values, “What does it profit?”  Christ’s questions were designed to shepherd and lead people toward a path of healing, not necessarily a way of being cured.  Jesus Christ’s words and actions were meant to show people that he himself is the path toward peace, healing, and, sometimes, even the perceived need to be healed.

In the encounter with a Samaritan woman, Jesus, the Pastor, comes along and has a lengthy conversation with her that began with talking about getting a drink of water on a hot day and ends with the woman being in touch, maybe for the first time, with her deepest need of being accepted, loved, and satisfied.  Sometimes I chuckle over some scholars and writers pouring over this story in John’s Gospel, trying to find the secret sauce or discernible outline to speaking with people in need of emotional and spiritual healing or enlightenment.  Yet, again, I’ll just make a simple observation about the story:

Jesus put love where love was not.

woman at the well

The woman did not have love from the Jews because she was a “half-breed” Samaritan.  Furthermore, she had a string of loveless marriages and was with a man who apparently was just using her.  Then, Jesus showed up.  He abandoned all contemporary Jewish convention by speaking with a Samaritan woman.  He put his agenda on hold.  He was fully present to her.  He asked questions and took the time to listen.  And then he extended to her the kind of love that she desperately needed. Drinking water from a deep well became a powerful metaphor and picture of cleansing and refreshment to a dry and parched soul that had not known love for a very long time.  Jesus changed her life.  He put love where love was not (John 4:1-42).

So, let’s wheel back around to the question of “why?” and “why” we ask it in the first place.  Typically, we want a fix.  We’re broken, and it’s a big enough mess that the only repair person is God.  God, however, doesn’t feel the same anxiety we do about the dilemma (in fact, he doesn’t have any worry at all).  Instead, God does something we usually don’t expect.  He sends someone to care, and another to help, and yet another to pray, and even more to meet various needs.  Behind the scenes, far from our fear-laden hearts, the Lord of the universe is paying attention to us and orchestrating a massive campaign of love.

In those times when it seems chaos will win the day, and in those seasons when evil appears to have the high ground, please know that there is a God in heaven who sees your life and is personally writing a protest song against the injustice and unfairness of what is happening.  And Christ’s resurrection is at the center of that song.  When it’s sung, it will melt fear, cause demons to flee, and create transformation in ways that you would never have seen coming.  Where we are looking for a supernatural miracle, God is eyeing to bring common ordinary people to your doorstep with a basket full of love.

When Jesus left this earth, here is exactly what he wanted his followers to know going forward:

“And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:20).

The ever-present love of Christ shall never leave you, nor forsake you.  You can count on it.  Allow your “why” question to turn into a “who” question.  “Who” will be with me to the end, will pour his love into my heart, and will hold me up when I can’t stand anymore?  Every path leads to one infinite source of living water: Jesus Christ.  It is to him that you and I are to find our peace and our rest.