Leviticus 19:9-18 – Be a Good Neighbor

When you reap the harvest of your land, do not reap to the very edges of your field or gather the gleanings of your harvest. Do not go over your vineyard a second time or pick up the grapes that have fallen. Leave them for the poor and the foreigner. I am the Lord your God.

Do not steal.

Do not lie.

Do not deceive one another.

Do not swear falsely by my name and so profane the name of your God. I am the Lord.

Do not defraud or rob your neighbor.

Do not hold back the wages of a hired worker overnight.

Do not curse the deaf or put a stumbling block in front of the blind but fear your God. I am the Lord.

Do not pervert justice; do not show partiality to the poor or favoritism to the great but judge your neighbor fairly.

Do not go about spreading slander among your people.

Do not do anything that endangers your neighbor’s life. I am the Lord.

Do not hate a fellow Israelite in your heart. Rebuke your neighbor frankly so you will not share in their guilt.

Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against anyone among your people but love your neighbor as yourself. I am the Lord. (New International Version)

All of these Old Testaments commands to the ancient Israelites are a development and expansion upon the basic core Ten Commands or Words given by God to Moses.

Those core commands are based in the character of God. That same character is to be the normal daily lived experience of God’s people.

The Levitical instructions are a fleshing-out of God’s basic commands for a specific people in their particular social, economic, and historical situation.

Although we need not, as modern folk, strictly observe the commands, as they are culturally constructed, we very much need to fulfill the ethics and morality which are behind the specific instructions.

Today’s Old Testament lesson has to do with being a good neighbor – a person who conscientiously lives in community with others and pays attention to the collective needs and wants of everyone. It is to live into God’s overarching ethic for the common good of all persons.

A commitment to community life needs good neighbors. They are characterized by the following virtues:

Sacrifice

Israel was chiefly an agrarian society. So, when the season of harvest came, the workers gleaning the fields were to only go over it once. That way, the poor and less fortunate could come behind and pick up what the workers missed or dropped.

Any landowner who instructed the workers to keep working until they got every scrap of grain or fruit was being cruel to the poor. Merciful and generous owners would, conversely, instruct the workers to leave a bit behind and not get everything.

Since God sacrifices on behalf of humanity, so we, too, are to make sacrifices which benefit the common good of all persons in the community.

Live a life filled with love, following the example of Christ. He loved us and offered himself as a sacrifice for us, a pleasing aroma to God. (Ephesians 5:2, NLT)

A sacrificial spirit, not a self-indulgent one, is what God is looking for in a good neighbor.

Honesty

Cheating, lying, stealing, and deceit have absolutely no place in the kingdom of God. Instead, honest dealings with others, always being above board in all matters, is of upmost importance to God.

Witnesses in court are expected to speak the truth without falsehood. Business dealings are to have accurate weights and measures. Integrity and trustworthiness are the building blocks of any good society.

Since God is truth, so we, too, are to live into truth through being honest in all we say and do.

Have nothing to do with a false charge and do not put an innocent or honest person to death, for I will not acquit the guilty. Do not accept a bribe, for a bribe blinds those who see and twists the words of the innocent. (Exodus 23:7-8, NIV)

An honest spirit, not a thieving one, is what God is looking for in a good neighbor.

Fairness

In the ancient world, and still in many parts of the world today, workers were paid at the end of the day for their day’s work. Bosses who withheld expected wages till the next day were quite literally depriving a family of their supper.

For those who are not able to do a solid day’s work, such as the blind and the handicapped, it’s bad enough to simply ignore them, because God is attentive to their plight. That situation is exacerbated exponentially, whenever someone or a group of people, decide to make such persons’ lives even harder than they already are.

Since God is fair in all dealings, so we, too, are to extend fairness to all without any prejudice or favoritism.

The Lord watches to see if we are fair or if we cheat others. (Proverbs 16:11, CEV)

A fair spirit, not an exploitive one, is what God is looking for in a good neighbor.

Justice

Unequal treatment is about as far from God as one can get. Being concerned only about those with similar political views, economic interests, or spiritual inclinations is a gross practice of injustice. It denies the ethic of the common good of all in favor of the common good of some.

Since God is just in all things, so we, too, are to uphold biblical justice for our fellow humanity, no matter who they are or where they come from.

Never deprive foreigners and orphans of justice. And never take widows’ clothes to guarantee a loan. (Deuteronomy 24:17, GW)

A spirit of justice, not injustice, is what God is looking for in a good neighbor.

Love

Hate is the inevitable result of holding onto anger through nursing a grudge and holding onto bitterness. It fails to speak up and speak out.

Love, however, assertively addresses anger and seeks to make things right in a calm and concerned way. Love attacks problems, not people.

Since God is love, so we, too are to love one another.

Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. (1 John 4:7, NIV)

Don’t let evil get the best of you; get the best of evil by doing good. (Romans 12:21, MSG)

A spirit of love, not a hateful vengeful one, is what God is looking for in a good neighbor.

A good neighbor is one who seeks the common good of all persons because God is good, all the time, and always does what is right, just, and fair.

Gracious God and Father, in a world of fear and suspicion, teach us that love is the only means to conquer fear.

Loving Lord Jesus, Son of God, in a world full of anger and frustration, teach to overturn the tables and tear down the fences which turn away the hungry and homeless; and to practice hospitality without prejudice.

Blessed Holy Spirit of God, in a world of indifference and ignorance, teach us wisdom, to be caring of one another, and to protect one another.

Blessed Holy Trinity, the God whom we serve, help us to know the peace that steals gently in through quiet acts of kindness, just as peace is always within you as one God, now and forever. Amen.

Revelation 7:9-17 – Enduring Love

Look He’s Coming with the Clouds by Anthony Falbo, 2014

After this I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands. And they cried out in a loud voice:

“Salvation belongs to our God,
who sits on the throne,
and to the Lamb.”

All the angels were standing around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures. They fell down on their faces before the throne and worshiped God, saying:

“Amen!
Praise and glory
and wisdom and thanks and honor
and power and strength
be to our God for ever and ever.
Amen!”

Then one of the elders asked me, “These in white robes—who are they, and where did they come from?”

I answered, “Sir, you know.”

And he said, “These are they who have come out of the great tribulation; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. Therefore,

“they are before the throne of God
    and serve him day and night in his temple;
and he who sits on the throne
    will shelter them with his presence.
‘Never again will they hunger;
    never again will they thirst.
The sun will not beat down on them,’
    nor any scorching heat.
For the Lamb at the center of the throne
    will be their shepherd;
‘he will lead them to springs of living water.’
    ‘And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.’” (New International Version)

A simple observation of today’s text: There can only be a great multitude of people if there are a great multitude of mothers. The great multitude in the Apostle John’s vision of the end of time, had just come out of the great tribulation. And God does for them what any good mother would do: Never lets any of their children go hungry or thirsty; gets them out of harm’s way and protects them; and bends down to wipe their tears away and let them know that everything is going to be okay.

There is a day coming when followers of Jesus will see him face to face. Believers will serve the Lord continually. God’s very presence will be their permanent shelter. It will be a glorious time of unending peace, harmony, and rest.

There shall be no more worrying about how to make ends meet, no more wondering where we are going to get our needs met, and no more anxiety about the future. Injustice will be a thing of the past. Unending love and light will replace it.

First, however, before this permanent Sabbath, there will be trouble, hardship, trial, and even martyrdom. There is presently pain and suffering. Like a woman in labor, this must take place before there is the glory of new life. 

Sometimes the difficult circumstances of life seem to have no end. Yet, they will eventually pass, and we must continually keep this in mind. Christians have the hope of God’s pastoral presence forever guarding and keeping our lives if we endure to the end.

Perseverance, endurance, and pushing through hard situations are necessary to realize new and eternal life. We are not meant to just sit here on earth in some sort of holding pattern, waiting for the end to occur. Just as a pregnant woman changes her lifestyle to carry the child within, so we as Christians need to carry our souls, utilizing all kinds of spiritual practices that will help us do that well, until Jesus returns.

The Apostle John’s vision was given to believers in hardship who needed to persevere when things were tough. Giving them a glimpse of the glorious ending was one way of helping them in the present to live for Jesus Christ, despite the pain.

There’s nothing quite like a mother’s love. With the security of that love, we can live in healthy ways, enduring and persevering through difficulty and adversity. God’s love enables us to live securely in five ways:

  1. Not being afraid to fail.

That’s because, for the believer, we know the ending. We may, at times, feel like colossal failures, yet because the Lord is with us, we have nothing to fear. Being secure in our identity as God’s people enables us to step out and engage the world.

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes up short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”

Theodore Roosevelt

When I am afraid,
    I put my trust in you.
I trust God, so I am not afraid of what people can do to me!
    I praise God for his promise to me. (Psalm 56:3-4, ERV)

2. Taking small steps of faith.

We can incrementally improve ourselves daily through our growth in grace. We don’t need to always do big things for God. We can do small acts of kindness with big love. That is likely what your own mother modeled for you. All big things come from small beginnings. The seed of every habit is a single, tiny decision. As that decision is repeated, over and over, a habit sprouts and grows stronger.

Continue to grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. To him be the glory, now and forever! Amen. (2 Peter 3:18, GNT)

Love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, all your mind, and all your strength. ’The second most important command is this: ‘Love your neighbor the same as you love yourself.’ These two commands are the most important. (Mark 12:30-31, ERV)

3. Being able to identify resistance.

With an awareness of God with us, we are able to name the obstacles, impediments, and challenges to perseverance. Acknowledging what hinders us, gives us the power to choose how to handle it. Our very survival depends on our ability to stay awake, to adjust to new ideas, to remain vigilant and to face the challenge of change.

We should remove from our lives anything that would slow us down and the sin that so often makes us fall. We must never stop looking to Jesus. He is the leader of our faith, and he is the one who makes our faith complete. (Hebrews 12:1-2, ERV)

4. Practicing good self-care.

The body, mind, emotions, and spirit are our vehicles to doing the will of God. So, it is imperative we steward these precious gifts of humanity with care. The only way we will make it over the long haul of our lives is through paying attention to how we carry stress in our bodies, learn to listen to it’s message, and following what we hear. Nearly everything works again if we unplug it for a few minutes… including us!

God has made us what we are. In Christ Jesus, God made us new people so that we would spend our lives doing the good things he had already planned for us to do. (Ephesians 2:10, ERV)

Surely you know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit lives in you! (1 Corinthians 3:16, GNT)

5. Connecting with why you are persevering.

Losing connection with why we do what we do leads to dropping out and giving up. Yet, when we can remain vigilant to what is most important to us, it helps us push through all the sticky points of our lives. We all get stuck. And love is always the answer to getting unstuck. People don’t care what we believe; they care about why we believe it.

So, if you eat, or if you drink, or if you do anything, do it for the glory of God. (1 Corinthians 10:31, ERV)

Whatever you do, whether in speech or action, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus and give thanks to God the Father through him. (Colossians 3:17, CEB)

Persevering and enduring throughout our lives can only be done with a great deal of encouragement – which means generous rhythms of giving love and receiving love. It’s what God does. It’s what our mothers taught and modeled for us. It’s enduring love.

Patient God, you tediously work until your plans and purposes are accomplished. As you are slowly bringing your kingdom to the world, strengthen me so that I do not give up. Help me to persevere, living and loving like Jesus, to his glory. Amen.

Ezekiel 11:1-25 – A New Heart

Then the Spirit lifted me up and brought me to the gate of the house of the Lord that faces east. There at the entrance of the gate were twenty-five men, and I saw among them Jaazaniah son of Azzur and Pelatiah son of Benaiah, leaders of the people. The Lord said to me, “Son of man, these are the men who are plotting evil and giving wicked advice in this city. They say, ‘Haven’t our houses been recently rebuilt? This city is a pot, and we are the meat in it.’ Therefore, prophesy against them; prophesy, son of man.”

Then the Spirit of the Lord came on me, and he told me to say: “This is what the Lord says: That is what you are saying, you leaders in Israel, but I know what is going through your mind. You have killed many people in this city and filled its streets with the dead.

“Therefore, this is what the Sovereign Lord says: The bodies you have thrown there are the meat, and this city is the pot, but I will drive you out of it. You fear the sword, and the sword is what I will bring against you, declares the Sovereign Lord. I will drive you out of the city and deliver you into the hands of foreigners and inflict punishment on you. You will fall by the sword, and I will execute judgment on you at the borders of Israel. Then you will know that I am the Lord. This city will not be a pot for you, nor will you be the meat in it; I will execute judgment on you at the borders of Israel. And you will know that I am the Lord, for you have not followed my decrees or kept my laws but have conformed to the standards of the nations around you.”

Now as I was prophesying, Pelatiah son of Benaiah died. Then I fell face down and cried out in a loud voice, “Alas, Sovereign Lord! Will you completely destroy the remnant of Israel?”

The word of the Lord came to me: “Son of man, the people of Jerusalem have said of your fellow exiles and all the other Israelites, ‘They are far away from the Lord; this land was given to us as our possession.’

“Therefore say: ‘This is what the Sovereign Lord says: Although I sent them far away among the nations and scattered them among the countries, yet for a little while I have been a sanctuary for them in the countries where they have gone.’

“Therefore say: ‘This is what the Sovereign Lord says: I will gather you from the nations and bring you back from the countries where you have been scattered, and I will give you back the land of Israel again.’

“They will return to it and remove all its vile images and detestable idols. I will give them an undivided heart and put a new spirit in them; I will remove from them their heart of stone and give them a heart of flesh. Then they will follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws. They will be my people, and I will be their God. But as for those whose hearts are devoted to their vile images and detestable idols, I will bring down on their own heads what they have done, declares the Sovereign Lord.”

Then the cherubim, with the wheels beside them, spread their wings, and the glory of the God of Israel was above them. The glory of the Lord went up from within the city and stopped above the mountain east of it. The Spirit lifted me up and brought me to the exiles in Babylonia in the vision given by the Spirit of God.

Then the vision I had seen went up from me, and I told the exiles everything the Lord had shown me. (New International Version)

God’s heart is a heart of justice. The Lord abhors unrighteousness, injustice, and oppression. Thankfully, God will not sit idle and put up with systemic evil for long.

Ezekiel is one of those Old Testament prophets that thoroughly uncovered the true state things, especially of the human heart. Through a series of visions given to Ezekiel for the Israelite exiles, one of the main messages of the prophet is that God would give them a new heart. 

There is hope for the exile, for the one in captivity because of sin’s destructive, demeaning, and deluding power. Conversely, for those conforming to such ways, for the ones who caused the exile of others, the high Judge of the universe will deal with them according to their errant and rascally ways.

Dark shadows exist within the human heart. Although humanity has a great potential for altruistic good, people also have a large capacity for evil. Arrogant pride, self-centered behavior, and sheer ignorance can take such root within a person’s heart, as well as the heart of an organization or institution, that oppression becomes the norm, with fat cats ruling over an indigent people.

At best, the heart apart from God contains a miniscule vestige of its ancient Creator’s image; at worst, the heart is desperately wicked and on a highway to hell. 

The issue, then, is whether the heart only needs to be modified, or whether there is needed a complete heart transplant. The prophet makes it quite clear which option must be done.

Jesus Christ sacrificed himself on the cross so that we could be transformed into new people. He did not come to tweak a few things in life and improve upon it – he came to bring wholesale change and transform the heart. 

If all we needed was a motivational speaker who would inspire our hearts to live better and reach our personal goals, then we would have not needed an incarnation, a crucifixion, a resurrection and ascension. Jesus is the risen Lord and Savior who replaces our hard stubborn hearts with a soft new heart of flesh. 

We need transformation of life, not life modification.

Awesome God, you have graciously and surgically removed my old heart, which was bound for destruction, and replaced it with a new heart, oriented toward living and loving like the Lord Jesus. May my heart always be inclined to the doing of your will, in the power of your Holy Spirit. Amen.

Habakkuk 3:2-15 – Coming to Grips with Injustice

Statue of the Prophet Habakkuk, by Donatello c.1425 in Florence, Italy

I know your reputation, Lord,
and I am amazed
    at what you have done.
Please turn from your anger
    and be merciful;
do for us what you did
    for our ancestors.

You are the same Holy God
who came from Teman
    and Paran to help us.
The brightness of your glory
    covered the heavens,
and your praises were heard
    everywhere on earth.
Your glory shone like the sun,
and light flashed from your hands,
    hiding your mighty power.
Dreadful diseases and plagues
marched in front
    and followed behind.
When you stopped,
    the earth shook;
when you stared,
    nations trembled;
when you walked
    along your ancient paths,
eternal mountains and hills
    crumbled and collapsed.
The tents of desert tribes
in Cushan and Midian
    were ripped apart.

Our Lord, were you angry
with the monsters
    of the deep?
You attacked in your chariot
    and wiped them out.
Your arrows were ready
    and obeyed your commands.

You split the earth apart
    with rivers and streams;
mountains trembled
    at the sight of you;
rain poured from the clouds;
    ocean waves roared and rose.
The sun and moon stood still,
while your arrows and spears
    flashed like lightning.

In your furious anger,
    you trampled on nations
to rescue your people
    and save your chosen one.
You crushed a nation’s ruler
and stripped his evil kingdom
    of its power.
His troops had come like a storm,
hoping to scatter us
    and glad to gobble us down.
To them we were refugees
    in hiding—
but you smashed their heads
    with their own weapons.
Then your chariots churned
    the waters of the sea. (Contemporary English Version)

“Willfulness must give way to willingness and surrender. Mastery must yield to mystery.”

Gerald G. May

Tucked away in the Old Testament is the little prophecy of Habakkuk. Yet it packs a punch of a message. 

The prophet was distressed over the corruption of his people, Israel. So, he complained to God about it. God responded by informing Habakkuk that judgment was coming to sinful Israel through the pagan Babylonians.

This was not what Habakkuk expected. The prophet grumbled even more about the fact that the Babylonians were much more evil than the Israelites. The Babylonians needed judgment, too! (Habakkuk 1:2-17)

Today’s Old Testament lesson is Habakkuk’s struggle to come to terms with what God was doing. He remembered the Lord’s mighty deeds and miraculous actions from the past. God brought justice to Israel and judged the powerful Egyptians.

It seems that Habakkuk wanted God to make right the corruption of Israel, but not to do it in the same way that pagan nations are handled.

“The most difficult thing I have ever had to do is follow the guidance I prayed for.”

Albert Schweitzer

We all must come to grips with the cost of justice, of truly making things right and turning corruption and oppression around. Sometimes, maybe most times, implementing justice will impact everyone in an adverse way. For there is no realistic scenario in which someone gets to call for justice, then doesn’t have to live with the consequences – even if that someone isn’t culpable for the unjust actions.

You see, we are all inextricably connected to one another. We are of the same human family. We truly are our brother’s and sister’s keeper. We don’t get to shout or throw rocks from a distance and have everything magically change with no cost to us, personally.

It took the prophet Habakkuk awhile, but he finally resolved to live without having any closure. Instead, he took the stance of faith that he had always taken. Because when all is said and done, whether we like a particular outcome, or not, we must all live by faith, trusting in the sovereign God who always does what is right.

And here is the conclusion the prophet settled upon:

Though the fig tree does not bud
    and there are no grapes on the vines,
though the olive crop fails
    and the fields produce no food,
though there are no sheep in the pen
    and no cattle in the stalls,
yet I will rejoice in the Lord,
    I will be joyful in God my Savior.

The Sovereign Lord is my strength;
    he makes my feet like the feet of a deer,
    he enables me to tread on the heights. (Habakkuk 3:17-19, NIV)

Even though the circumstances were bad, and got worse, even dire, yet the prophet chose to rejoice in the Lord. He took the path of radical trust through suffering and hardship.

One of the most significant faith experiences we can ever have is to come to the point of complete trust in God so that our happiness is not dependent upon good circumstances. 

The truth is that the believer’s joy and spiritual security is independent of what is going on around them. Even though situations might be difficult, even evil, the faithful can still rejoice because they do not need everything to go their way in order to experience happiness.

Joy is neither cheap, nor easy. Total trust in God can only really come through a serious and open engagement, even argument, with God. And the place of contentment comes from a consistent, persevering, and constant interaction with God – just like Habakkuk did.

O Lord, we are at the limits of our power to effect any sort of change, help, or service. For what we have left undone, forgive us. For what you have helped us to do, we thank you. For what must be done by others, lend your strength. Now shelter us in your peace which passes our understanding. Amen.