1 Samuel 2:21-26 – Sin and Sinners

God was most especially kind to Hannah. She had three more sons and two daughters! The boy Samuel stayed at the sanctuary and grew up with God.

By this time Eli was very old. He kept getting reports on how his sons were ripping off the people and sleeping with the women who helped-out at the sanctuary. Eli took them to task: “What’s going on here? Why are you doing these things? I hear story after story of your corrupt and evil carrying on. Oh, my sons, this is not right! These are terrible reports I’m getting, stories spreading right and left among God’s people! If you sin against another person, there’s help—God’s help. But if you sin against God, who is around to help?”

But they were far gone in disobedience and refused to listen to a thing their father said. So, God, who was fed up with them, decreed their death. But the boy Samuel was very much alive, growing up, blessed by God and popular with the people. (MSG)

God is not okay with sin. And that is a good thing. In a world full of systemic violence, oppression, injustice, as well as personal cruelty and callousness toward others, we depend upon the Lord’s inherent character of justice and righteousness.

“Sin” is quickly becoming an antiquated word in our culture. That is likely because far too many persons and groups have created extrabiblical lists of sins to avoid – and so many understandably do not want anything to do with it. Biblically, sin is described as wrong and unjust actions (1 John 3:4), as well as failing to do right and just actions (James 4:17). 

Sin is both the breaking of God’s commands, and the lack of conforming to the teachings of Jesus. Christians throughout the ages have generally understood that the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:1-17) and Christ’s law of love (Luke 10:27) constitute a summary of God’s holy and moral instruction for humanity. This is all based in the character of God, as a holy and loving Being. Sin, then, may be defined as anything in a person which does not express, or is contrary to, the basic character of God.

All sin, whether through overt actions of injustice or a failure to get involved in righteous causes, is rooted in attitudes and activities of self-centeredness. Such sinful attitudes bring about an obsession with lust (1 John 8:34; Galatians 5:16); a broken relationship with God (Romans 3:23; Galatians 5:17); bondage to Satan (1 Timothy 3:6-7; 2 Timothy 2:26); death (Romans 6:23; 8:6); hardening of the heart (Hebrews 3:13); and deception (1 Corinthians 3:18; James 1:22, 26) just to a name a few. There is no upside to sin.

What all this means is that we are guilty of transgressing basic morality as well as failing to live up to being ethically virtuous people on any on-going consistent basis. “Well,” you might say, “that sounds like a total Debbie-Downer.” No, it is total depravity. Being depraved does not mean we are never capable of doing good; it just means that sin has profoundly touched everything in our lives, without exception.

The ironic paradox is that experiencing true joy and comfort comes through knowing how great our sin is. We can only live above sin if we are set free from it by the grace of God in Jesus Christ. If a person is to be redeemed from sin, then a provision must be made. In Christianity, sin has been dealt with once for all through the person and work of Jesus. Christ is our representative, taking our place with the punishment we deserved (Galatians 4:4-5; Ephesians 2:5-6; Colossians 2:9-15; Hebrews 2:17-18; 1 John 2:1).

Jesus Christ is our ultimate substitute (Romans 5:8); which resulted in our redemption (Galatians 5:13); which resulted in his sacrifice for sin satisfying all justice (Romans 3:25); which resulted in our reconciliation to God (Romans 5:10). So, the person who believes in Jesus is forgiven of sin because Christ’s sacrifice is sufficient to deal with all the effects of sin. The Christian is complete in Christ (Colossians 2:10).

The sin issue has been dealt with decisively and definitively in Christ. Thus, gratitude is the order of the day.  Christians ought to be the last people on earth who walk around looking like a bunch of sourpusses who were baptized in pickle juice. Instead, Christians ought to be the most thankful and gracious people around because they are forgiven people. A lack of joy and celebration betrays a lack of Christianity (Luke 15:25-32).

Sin certainly is awful. It destroys everything it touches and can leave terrible consequences in its wake. Sin, however, does not have the last word. Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection are the decisive blows to sin’s power. The skinny on sin is that it is terribly bad. But Jesus is extremely good and overcomes the worst that sin can dish out.

If only Eli’s sons would have listened to their father and embraced grace, yet their sin was so egregiously intolerant to the point that God had had enough of their shenanigans. The contrast between the Eli’s biological sons and his spiritual son, Samuel, were quite pronounced. Old Eli blessed Samuel and his parents but had to rebuke his own sons. Indeed, unchecked sin led to death, but the gift of favor is given to the penitent.

“Work hard for sin your whole life and your pension is death. But God’s gift is real life, eternal life, delivered by Jesus, our Master.”

romans 6:23, msg

Just as Samuel grew in stature and in favor with God and others, so a thousand-years later Luke the Evangelist uses this language to describe the growth of Jesus (Luke 2:40). We, too, can enjoy the grace of God whenever we forsake the heinous nature of sin and live into the way, the truth, and the life that the Lord has waiting for us.

Almighty God, Sovereign Lord of the universe, and Creator of humanity, we, your unfaithful children, are terribly sorry for our sins and the lives we have lived apart from your grace. We sincerely believe that only through the precious blood of our Lord Jesus Christ can we obtain your forgiveness. We confess we have committed serious offences against you in thought, word, and deed against our neighbors. In laziness, despair, and lust for power, we have provoked hatred, division and hurt within our communities. In greed, deceit, and indifference, we have caused serious damage and unnecessary conflict to our brothers and sisters. In selfishness, insensitivity, and bias we have encouraged and emboldened those who inflict hurt, pain, and sorrow
on our loved ones and families. In the name of religion, doctrine, and even of Christ himself we have wounded fellow believers. In stubbornness, pride, and arrogance, we have caused division and strife within your church.

Mercifully send your Holy Spirit and cleanse us from all unrighteousness, restore in us true faith in Christ, and help us to live in peace with our ourselves and our fellow humanity, through our Lord Jesus Christ, to the glory of your holy name. Amen.

Ephesians 5:1-6 – Follow the Way of Love

Love sculpture

Follow God’s example, therefore, as dearly loved children and walk in the way of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God. But among you there must not be even a hint of sexual immorality, or of any kind of impurity, or of greed, because these are improper for God’s holy people. Nor should there be obscenity, foolish talk, or coarse joking, which are out of place, but rather thanksgiving. For of this you can be sure: No immoral, impure, or greedy person—such a person is an idolater—has any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God. Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of such things God’s wrath comes on those who are disobedient. (NIV)

Humanity is loved and is therefore meant to love one another as the ultimate rule and guide of life. Just as God loves, so we are to do the same. We are to mimic divine love in our daily lives. The healthiest of relationships are characterized by a continual dynamic of giving love and receiving love. Failing to submit to this basic rule of life leaves one exposed to the gravity of God’s wrath – which exists as the extension of God’s love to put a stop to unloving words and actions in the world.

Unfortunately, as a hospital chaplain and church pastor, I daily see the sad effects of individuals who have experienced a paucity of love and, so, have taken on a false self to try and find love in all the wrong places – with damaging consequences.

Three inappropriate unloving ways of acting are mentioned in today’s New Testament lesson:

  • Sexual immorality is the illegitimate attempt to get the legitimate need for erotic love met without any strings attached. It is a misguided belief that one-night stands and clandestine trysts will protect against being too committed to another and getting hurt.
  • Impurity is any other illicit, illegal, or improper kind of behavior toward others which tries to do the same thing as immorality: Seeking to meet legitimate needs in an illegitimate way – to turn a trick for love, trying to avoid emotional, spiritual, or even physical pain.
  • Greed is an insatiable pursuit of addictive behavior meant to numb or stuff all the unwanted emotions which reside deep in the soul because of engaging in the immoral or impure actions.

Three inappropriate unloving words of speaking are mentioned:

  • Obscenity is filthy speech which is a cover for the agonizing unmet needs of love deep within the human heart. Obscene words are nothing more than verbal sexual immorality. They are a twisted attempt at trying to give and get loving words in an illicit manner.
  • Foolish talk, much like impurity, is any other illicit or improper words crafted to manipulate or cajole another. It is the hustle for love. The original Greek word means literally “to talk like a moron,” that is, a person who lacks sound judgment.
  • Coarse joking is crude and addictive speech, much like greed, envy, and coveting, which verbally trolls for love without unveiling any real feelings.

The antidote to all these baseless actions and distasteful words is to realize the true self, created by God, through receiving the love of God and of others with thanksgiving. Within genuine loving relationships, people can express their legitimate needs to each other and satisfy one another. Yet, with the false self, there is secrecy, hiding, and massive amounts of shame.

Love opens us to all that is good and beautiful. Love also opens us to the possibility of devastating hurt and loss. It is when we try to obtain the good and beautiful while trying to build walls of protection against potential pain that we get in trouble. The sinister tools we must use to try and get that impossible job done are manipulation and control with both verbal and physical immorality.

There is no true and authentic love apart from openness and vulnerability. Cheap imitations of love will only lead to hopeless despair. The late C.S. Lewis once wrote:

“To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact you must give it to no one, not even an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements. Lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket, safe, dark, motionless, airless, it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. To love is to be vulnerable.”

The way of love is the way of Christ. Imitating his example of a holy life, compassionate service, helpful speech, and healing actions with a humble heart of gratitude is to be our guide, rule, and direction in life. It is to realize our true selves and nudge the world just a bit closer back to Eden.

O Lord, in the name of Jesus Christ your Son our God, give us the love which never ceases so that our hearts will be enlightened and always burning with holy passion for the common good of all. O Christ, our loving Savior, set our souls aflame so that they may shine brightly with the warmth and glow of unquenchable divine love, and lessen the darkness of the world. Lord Jesus, we pray, give us the light of your love so that we might always see you, desire you, look on you in love, and long after you. Blessed Holy Spirit, send the fire of your love and empower us for loving service so that we may emulate and follow the example of our loving Lord, for the sake of Jesus Christ. Amen.

1 Thessalonians 4:1-8 – An Embodied Spirituality

divine dance

One final word, friends. We ask you—urge is more like it—that you keep on doing what we told you to do to please God, not in a dogged religious plod, but in a living, spirited dance. You know the guidelines we laid out for you from the Master Jesus. God wants you to live a pure life.

Keep yourselves from sexual promiscuity.

Learn to appreciate and give dignity to your body, not abusing it, as is so common among those who know nothing of God.

Don’t run roughshod over the concerns of your brothers and sisters. Their concerns are God’s concerns, and he will take care of them. We’ve warned you about this before. God hasn’t invited us into a disorderly, unkempt life but into something holy and beautiful—as beautiful on the inside as the outside.

If you disregard this advice, you’re not offending your neighbors; you’re rejecting God, who is making you a gift of his Holy Spirit. (MSG) 

Consider for a moment some of the things you have done today… For me, I arose early, had a workout, ate breakfast, showered, went to work, etc. Yeah, typical stuff we are familiar with. These things I just mentioned all had to do with the body. What is more, all of them are good and holy. Sometimes we may get a misguided notion that purity and holiness only has to do with activities that take place in a church building; or special works like serving at a homeless shelter; or, that the meeting of physical needs is merely a means to reach the soul. Yet, in today’s verses from Thessalonians, as well as the whole of Scripture, there is neither a secular/sacred dichotomy nor a dualism of body and soul.

We in the western world have inherited a long tradition of Platonic thinking. It underlies a lot about how we think of the body. Plato (c.427-327 B.C.E.) embraced a dual nature of people – an existence of body and soul in which the spirit is trapped within physical flesh. Plato considered the soul to be the true nature of a person and tended to denigrate the body as an earthen vessel which will eventually be discarded. Our physical existence was nothing more than a necessary evil for Plato.

Greek Dualism

The problem with Plato’s anthropology is that it fails to discern the holistic nature of body and soul and the need for integrity with these human dimensions. Historically, Plato’s view has tended to come out sideways through lack of care for the body and seeing bodily actions as insignificant.

Thus, sexual immorality is common in dualism because our physical selves are less significant, temporary, and disposable. In all fairness to Plato, he did not encourage misuse of the body or sexual immorality, yet, his philosophy opened-up generations of people neglecting their own bodies and inflicting harm on other bodies. In many ways, Greek dualism is the shadow philosophy behind much sexual abuse today.

When we exalt the soul as supreme over the body, we are living out platonic thought, not biblical teaching. All of life is sacramental – the body is sacred, and, so, ought to be treated as holy – with great care and careful attention to breath, movement, exercise, eating, sleeping, playing, and, yes, even sex. The body is to be celebrated as our means of glorifying God on this earth. And, at the end of the age when Christ returns, we will be reunited with our bodies to live forever as embodied creatures. What we do with our bodies now matters to God.

Inattention and/or disregard for the body God has given us will inevitably lead to a lack of boundaries in which others are open to violate us and we are unaware of violating others. We end up running roughshod over each other, spiritually and physically. An embodied and grounded spirituality helps us clarify what holiness and sanctification looks like in relationships and everyday life.

boundaries

God has not called us to impurity but to holiness in all of life, in every physical activity we do. We have not been designed by our Creator to live in any old way we want; we have been set apart and called by God to walk along the road of purity and peace.  The way in which we use our minds, wills, emotions, and bodies – aligned and in agreement with the whole person – are of much interest and great concern to God Almighty.

God cares about food and whether I eat to his glory and give thanks; or, whether I have no interest in those that are hungry but just stuff as many groceries as I can in my distended stomach.  God cares about whether I take time for rest and Sabbath and whether I isolate myself in mindless TV watching for hours.  God cares about the content of my conversations with my family and friends – whether I am using my vocal cords for encouraging and building-up others, or whether they are forming slanderous, gossipy, and unhelpful words.

Everything in all creation belongs to God – including me, you, and everything we do.  God cares about all of life’s activities and leisure time.  Whether tying our shoes or teaching a Sunday School class, it is all to be done with a sense of holiness and connection to the God that makes it all possible. Christian spirituality is embodied spirituality. So, let us engage in all kinds of good works for the benefit of the body, whether little or large, with the time and talents God has graciously given us.

Lord God, I belong to you – set apart and sanctified so that I may always walk in holiness and please you in everything I do.  Help my life today to reflect the purity you have given me through your Son, the Lord Jesus.  May he be glorified through me now and always.  Amen.