Deuteronomy 9:15-24 – The Dark Underbelly of Sin

“Golden Calf” by John Bradford

Moses continued: “So, while the mountain was blazing with fire I turned and came down, holding in my hands the two stone tablets inscribed with the terms of the covenant. There below me I could see that you had sinned against the Lord your God. You had melted gold and made a calf idol for yourselves. How quickly you had turned away from the path the Lord had commanded you to follow! So, I took the stone tablets and threw them to the ground, smashing them before your eyes.

“Then, as before, I threw myself down before the Lord for forty days and nights. I ate no bread and drank no water because of the great sin you had committed by doing what the Lord hated, provoking him to anger. I feared that the furious anger of the Lord, which turned him against you, would drive him to destroy you. But again, he listened to me. The Lord was so angry with Aaron that he wanted to destroy him, too. But I prayed for Aaron, and the Lord spared him. I took your sin—the calf you had made—and I melted it down in the fire and ground it into fine dust. Then I threw the dust into the stream that flows down the mountain.

“You also made the Lord angry at Taberah, Massah, and Kibroth-hattaavah. And at Kadesh-barnea the Lord sent you out with this command: ‘Go up and take over the land I have given you.’ But you rebelled against the command of the Lord your God and refused to put your trust in him or obey him. Yes, you have been rebelling against the Lord as long as I have known you. (New Living Translation)

I’m really glad there was no social media back in the day when the Israelites made the golden calf idol. Most people tend to post flattering pictures of happy families and wonderful experiences. Somehow, methinks the ancient Israelites would have tried to make the whole thing at Mount Sinai look like some party we would envy going to.

But there’s always a dark underbelly to all the glitter and photoshopped pics. And God sees and knows it all.

God is full of grace, steadfast love, and covenant commitment. Yet, this does not mean that God is okay with disobedience and people doing whatever the heck they want to do. The Lord has anything but a shoulder-shrugging “meh” attitude toward hedonism. 

In fact, grace only exists because of sin. Where there is boundless grace and compassion there will be found bucket loads of self-absorbed behavior. And, oh my, was there a load of it among the ancient Israelites! They were characterized as stubborn, rebellious, and idolatrous. It’s the kind of stuff that evokes the ire of God.

Genuinely godly people share God’s heart and interests. That is, what upsets God, upsets them; and what makes God pleased, makes them pleased. Moses was in sync with God. So, he was visibly angered by the people’s idolatry. Moses confronted the people with going far astray from the Lord. And, what’s more, Moses showed that his heart reflects God’s heart by immediately engaging in an extended time of fasting and prayer on their behalf – forty days and forty nights.

Lackadaisical attitudes and approaches toward God are a dime-a-dozen with many so called believers. There is little to no sustained, prolonged, and focused times of prayer and fasting among both individuals and groups of people. Many folks are simply too busy indulging in revelry with their idols of money, sex, power, and perfectionist control. 

Until we are cut to the heart with this present darkness of empty souls and vacuous spirits, which run to everything and everyone but God, there will be no entering the Promised Land of peace, love, and joy in the Holy Spirit. 

The dark underbelly of sin needs to be turned over so that it can be exposed to the purifying light of God’s glory. The worms of guilt must be unearthed, spread before the heat of the Son, and destroyed. The heavy load of shame needs to be jettisoned and thrown into the fire of God’s wrath.

The glory of the Lord is almost upon us, and the season of Lent is nearly here. So, let us make a solid spiritual plan for the forty days leading up to Easter for prayer and fasting on behalf of our own wrongdoing and shortcomings, as well as for the sin of the world.

Holy God, idolatry brings about your wrath because you cannot stand the lack of love in the world. I bow before you and bend the knee to your sovereign reign in my life. Please lead me in your way of righteousness and have mercy on those trapped in darkness so that we might see you, through Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior. Amen.

Leviticus 5:1-13 – The Problem of Guilt

“‘If anyone sins because they do not speak up when they hear a public charge to testify regarding something they have seen or learned about, they will be held responsible.

“‘If anyone becomes aware that they are guilty—if they unwittingly touch anything ceremonially unclean (whether the carcass of an unclean animal, wild or domestic, or of any unclean creature that moves along the ground) and they are unaware that they have become unclean, but then they come to realize their guilt;or if they touch human uncleanness (anything that would make them unclean) even though they are unaware of it, but then they learn of it and realize their guilt; or if anyone thoughtlessly takes an oath to do anything, whether good or evil (in any matter one might carelessly swear about) even though they are unaware of it, but then they learn of it and realize their guilt—when anyone becomes aware that they are guilty in any of these matters, they must confess in what way they have sinned. As a penalty for the sin they have committed, they must bring to the Lord a female lamb or goat from the flock as a sin offering; and the priest shall make atonement for them for their sin.

“‘Anyone who cannot afford a lamb is to bring two doves or two young pigeons to the Lord as a penalty for their sin—one for a sin offering and the other for a burnt offering. They are to bring them to the priest, who shall first offer the one for the sin offering. He is to wring its head from its neck, not dividing it completely, and is to splash some of the blood of the sin offering against the side of the altar; the rest of the blood must be drained out at the base of the altar. It is a sin offering. The priest shall then offer the other as a burnt offering in the prescribed way and make atonement for them for the sin they have committed, and they will be forgiven.

“‘If, however, they cannot afford two doves or two young pigeons, they are to bring as an offering for their sin a tenth of an ephah of the finest flour for a sin offering. They must not put olive oil or incense on it, because it is a sin offering. They are to bring it to the priest, who shall take a handful of it as a memorial portion and burn it on the altar on top of the food offerings presented to the Lord. It is a sin offering. In this way the priest will make atonement for them for any of these sins they have committed, and they will be forgiven. The rest of the offering will belong to the priest, as in the case of the grain offering.’” (New International Version)

“Indifference is the sign of sickness, a sickness of the soul more contagious than any other.”

Elie Wiesel

Guilt comes in two forms: overt speech or action which wrongs another person; or the failure to speak or act when it was necessary to do so.

Oftentimes we think of sin as exclusively wrongdoing – an overt act of disobedience or evil. Yet, sin primarily manifests itself through indifference. The sinner is mostly one who doesn’t get involved. He walks on the other side of the road to avoid unwanted entanglements.

What’s more, sins of the tongue are much more common and prolific than sins of the body. Although hurtful words abound in this fallen world, it is also the absence of speaking up and naming falsehood for what it is that is an egregious sin before God.

The Lord will hold responsible those who are silent in the face of observing injustice.

And, if later, someone becomes aware they were complicit with an injustice through a failure to speak up, they are also guilty.

The Old Testament book of Leviticus is all about maintaining the purity and holiness of God’s people. So, the book is filled with detailed prescriptions on how to handle guilt. Going through a specific and laborious process of dealing with guilt, communicated to the people that this is important. It’s a big deal.

We need, however, to ensure we aren’t using the terms guilt and shame interchangeably.

Guilt is a function of our conscience. It lets us know when we have said or done something wrong or hurtful, or failed to provide help. It’s specific to a particular action or lack of action.

Shame, however, is a function of the “inner critic.” It interprets bad words or actions as we ourselves being bad. It focuses not on actions but on our very personhood in the form of judgmentalism leveled at myself.

Whereas guilt says, “I have done something bad,” shame says, “I am bad.” Guilt serves a redemptive purpose through alerting us that we need to deal with a wrong. Shame, however, damages our spirits through telling us we are flawed and unworthy of love and connection with others.

Because guilt and shame are not the same, they need to be dealt with in different ways:

  • Guilt, if not faced and dealt with, becomes gangrene of the soul. Over time it festers and poisons our spirits, leading to significant emotional and sometimes physical problems. Forgiveness is the primary tool in dealing with guilt. It begins with self-forgiveness and then offering an apology to another and asking for forgiveness.
  • Shame is a vampire that lives in the shadows and feeds on secrets. If shame persists, we withdraw from others and experience grinding loneliness. Therefore, the path out of shame is to openly name our shame and tell our stories. This takes power away from shame and gives it to yourself. In other words, the practice of vulnerability erases shame.

For the Christian, Jesus is the once for all sacrificial offering which forever takes away both our guilt and our shame.

Since we have a great High Priest who rules over God’s house, let us go right into the presence of God with sincere hearts fully trusting him. For our guilty consciences have been sprinkled with Christ’s blood to make us clean, and our bodies have been washed with pure water. (Hebrews 10:21-22, NLT)

We must never stop looking to Jesus. He is the leader of our faith, and he is the one who makes our faith complete. He suffered death on a cross. But he accepted the shame of the cross as if it were nothing because of the joy he could see waiting for him. And now he is sitting at the right side of God’s throne. (Hebrews 12:2, ERV)

“See, I lay a stone in Zion,
    a chosen and precious cornerstone,
and the one who trusts in him
    will never be put to shame.” (1 Peter 2:6, NIV)

Guilt and shame are not erased by either ignoring them or by dismissing them as negative emotions. They are handled through the person and work of Jesus Christ. It is grace which grants us amnesty from shortcomings, failures, and sins.

Thanks be to God! Believe this gospel and live in its peace.

Holy and merciful God, in your presence we confess our sinfulness, our shortcomings, and our offenses against you. You alone know how often we have sinned in wandering from your ways, in wasting your gifts, in forgetting your love. Have mercy on us, O Lord, for we are sorry for all we have done to displease you. Forgive our sins, and help us to live in your light and walk in your ways, for the sake of Jesus Christ, our Savior. Amen.

1 Corinthians 3:10-17 – Being a Holy Temple

Albi Cathedral in Sainte-Chapelle, France

By the grace God has given me, I laid a foundation as a wise builder, and someone else is building on it. But each one should build with care. For no one can lay any foundation other than the one already laid, which is Jesus Christ. If anyone builds on this foundation using gold, silver, costly stones, wood, hay or straw, their work will be shown for what it is, because the Day will bring it to light. It will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test the quality of each person’s work. If what has been built survives, the builder will receive a reward. If it is burned up, the builder will suffer loss but yet will be saved—even though only as one escaping through the flames.

Don’t you know that you yourselves are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in your midst? If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy that person; for God’s temple is sacred, and you together are that temple. (New International Version)

God is holy, pure, beautiful, and completely separated from all that is evil. 

However, there is a problem; but it isn’t with God. 

Ever since the fall of humanity into guilt, shame, and impurity, people cannot be near or approach a perfect Being. Just as we will surely go blind by looking directly at the sun – or be totally disintegrated by getting too close to it – so humans cannot be with such a holy God.

In the Old Testament, God graciously devised a system whereby people could approach the divine. A temple was built. It had very detailed and strict prescriptions about how it was to be built. There needed to be curtains, walls, and borders everywhere to shield the people from being destroyed by the sheer holiness of God.

Entering the New Testament, Jesus is the exact representation of God’s holy being and presence. In Christ, God became intimately close to people. Through the redemptive events of Jesus, humanity is delivered from the vexing problem of being far away from God. 

If that were not enough, God the Father and Son sent God the Holy Spirit to be the continuing presence of Jesus on this earth. 

In today’s New Testament lesson, the Apostle Paul tells us that, as the church, we are a holy temple which is graciously, patiently, and with great care being built into a spiritual house that can be the place where God meets with humanity.

The triune God has conspired and gone out of the way to be with us. The Lord has bended the arc of history for good purposes to be with us. Like a lover separated from his beloved, God has pulled out all the stops to make us holy so that we can abide with him in divine holiness.

From the solid foundation of Jesus Christ as the chief cornerstone, we take care to build a spiritual infrastructure worthy of holiness.

As he who called you is holy, be holy yourselves in all your conduct;for it is written, “You shall be holy, for I am holy.” (1 Peter 1:15-16, NRSV)

God’s will is for you to be holy… God has called us to live holy lives, not impure lives. (1 Thessalonians 4:3, 7, NLT)

Some Christians mistakenly believe that holiness means to exclusively separate as far from everything and everyone who is impure. Any hint or smell of unsound dogma or nonconformity with established rules results in separation. Yet, this predilection for separation is really a form of division – which is contrary to the holiness of God. Because the Lord bends over backwards to accommodate the sinner’s ability to approach the divine presence.

Indeed, holiness involves a separation from all that is evil so that we can attach ourselves to God and others. Holiness isn’t simply an end in itself. To be holy means we are prepared and ready to engage in the highest of aims: Love.

Now that you have purified yourselves by obeying the truth so that you have sincere love for each other, love one another deeply, from the heart. For you have been born again, not of perishable seed, but of imperishable, through the living and enduring word of God. (1 Peter 1:22-23, NIV)

Holiness without a clear trajectory toward love is like putting a new collar on a dead dog. It just doesn’t make any sense.

Yet, too many folks have put a leash on that shiny new collar and are dragging the deceased around – much to the chagrin and revulsion of the world – who rightly sees this behavior as both downright crazy and plain stupid.

Paul would say that kind of behavior will be shown for what it is: Building on the wrong spiritual foundation.

It’s really all about Jesus. Christians bear the name of Christ because we (ideally) center our entire existence – past, present, and future – on the redemption provided through Jesus.

And that’s what this Christian season of the year is about: We celebrate the birth of Christ, God’s breaking into this world, to bridge the great divide between divinity and humanity.

The incarnation of Jesus Christ is our foundation.

Being a holy temple means being a sacred space large enough to hold love for all people.

From that strong support, there is no limit to the breadth and height of God’s kingdom. So, may you, along with the Apostle Paul pray:

I’m asking God to give you a gift from the wealth of his glory. I pray that he would give you inner strength and power through his Spirit. Then Christ will live in you through faith. I also pray that love may be the ground into which you sink your roots and on which you have your foundation. This way, with all of God’s people you will be able to understand how wide, long, high, and deep his love is. You will know Christ’s love, which goes far beyond any knowledge. I am praying this so that you may be completely filled with God. (Ephesians 3:16-19, GW)

Amen.

Psalm 101… Again

King David, by Unknown artist, c.14th century B.C.E.

I will sing of loyalty and of justice;
    to you, O Lord, I will sing.
I will study the way that is blameless.
    When shall I attain it?

I will walk with integrity of heart
    within my house;
I will not set before my eyes
    anything that is base.

I hate the work of those who fall away;
    it shall not cling to me.
Perverseness of heart shall be far from me;
    I will know nothing of evil.

One who secretly slanders a neighbor
    I will destroy.
A haughty look and an arrogant heart
    I will not tolerate.

I will look with favor on the faithful in the land,
    so that they may live with me;
whoever walks in the way that is blameless
    shall minister to me.

No one who practices deceit
    shall remain in my house;
no one who utters lies
    shall continue in my presence.

Morning by morning I will destroy
    all the wicked in the land,
cutting off all evildoers
    from the city of the Lord. (New Revised Standard Version)

Routine and repetition might seem tedious and boring. However, they are indispensable. People are designed for doing, saying, and thinking the same things over and over again. Habits help to press what is most important into our minds, our speech, and our behavior.

Transformation and change aren’t accomplished through sheer willpower. It happens through the small daily decisions of life. A mere ten minutes, dedicated specifically to a particular task each day, has the power to completely alter our lives.

The biblical psalms, read every day, out loud, through singing and praying, can bring an inside-out metamorphosis which can serve us for a lifetime. To help remind us of this, I sometimes include the psalm readings in my blog reflections two, even three, days in a row.

The Revised Common Lectionary is a method of reading through the Bible in a three-year cycle (Year A, B, C). Rather than reading the Bible from cover to cover, the Lectionary follows the seasons of the Christian Year (Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Easter, Pentecost and Ordinary Time).

The advantage to reading the Bible with daily assigned texts from the Old Testament, Psalms, and the New Testament is that the reader has an opportunity to follow the life of Jesus through the course of a year. For a Christian who wants to grow in discipleship, the Lectionary is a helpful way of getting to know Christ better.

Another benefit of following the Lectionary readings is that they can be read slowly in about ten to fifteen minutes. This affords the opportunity to spend time reflecting and thinking about how the Bible applies to our life today. Since the daily readings relate to one another from various places in the Bible, it is a helpful way of keeping in mind the whole of Scripture.

The daily readings of the Lectionary revolve around the Sunday readings. Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday readings reflect on the Sunday texts. Thursday, Friday, and Saturday prepare for Sunday. This has the obvious advantage for making Christian worship a special experience.

The purpose of the Lectionary is to encourage Bible reading, a well-rounded understanding of the Bible’s contents, as well as provide a good foundation for prayer. The Lectionary is meant to be a devotional reading of the Bible which draws people closer to God.

A consistent feature of the Revised Common Lectionary is that the same Psalm is read three days in a row. There is a reason for that. Psalms are meant for more than reading. They are also designed for prayer, singing, and worship.

Since I spiritually dwell a lot within the psalter, I have written out my own translation of many of them. I encourage you to read the following version out loud as a prayer to God….


God almighty, I will sing about your committed love and the exercise of your justice;
    and I will make music to and for you.
I have committed myself to wise discernment so I can walk in the way of integrity;
    so when will you come and help me?
    I will, with your assistance, establish integrity in my own home.
I refuse to set goals on worthless things which add no value to my life.
    I despise the actions of deviant and deceitful people,
    and I will not let their crud stick to me.
My mind and heart won’t go down that crooked path,
    for I will have nothing to do with the deeds of darkness.
The person who slanders another behind their back –
    well, just know, I will not put up with it!
The person who is full of themselves and looks down on others –
    believe you me, I will not tolerate it!

My eyes are fixated on pursuing trustworthy persons,

    and I will surround myself with them.

The person who walks in the way of integrity –

    for sure, will be my friend and confidant.
There is absolutely no room for deceitful hypocrites within my household,
    nor for any two-faced liar; they won’t be around me for long!
Every morning, without fail, I will practice justice,
    I will make it so evil persons cannot survive around me,
    effectively cutting-off troublemakers from your holy place.
Amen.