Grace is the Word

            One of my all-time favorite stories in the entire Bible is one that many people are not familiar with.  As far as I’m concerned, this story deserves to be up there as a hall-of-fame kind of story.  It is tucked away in the Old Testament book of 2 Samuel, almost as a parenthetical aside to the great victories and kingdom of David.  Within this one story we get to know the true heart of ministry, and the shape of what our Christian calling can look like in a world gone mad.
            David was at the pinnacle of his success.  For years, he roved all over the place hiding from King Saul.  David’s only crime was that he made the king jealous – envious enough for Saul to put out a hit on him.  Saul eventually was killed in battle, and David ascended the throne with a series of great military victories on every side of Israel.
            It is important to keep in mind that in the ancient world, kings who ascend the throne typically begin their reign by killing any-and-all potential rivals to the throne.  It was so common as to be expected.  So, if you are reading 2 Samuel 9 for the very first time and David begins by saying, “I wonder if any of Saul’s family are still alive,” you expect the hammer to come down.  David is going to secure his throne with eliminating Saul’s family.
            But David, in a twist that befits the heart of a man of God, gives his reason for wondering: “If they are, I will be kind to them, because I made a promise to Jonathan.”  Rather than find relatives of Saul to kill, David wanted to find family members, so that he could show kindness.
            This is how it is supposed to work in the kingdom of God, and in the Body of Christ – kindness to someone who does not deserve it.  Turns out Mephibosheth was still alive, and David graciously plucked him from his life as a disabled person and brought him to the palace to care for him.
            “Kindness” is a beautiful word.  It is translated as such from the Hebrew word “chesed.”Chesed [pronounced “hes-ed”] is God’s steadfast love, his infinite mercy, his loyal commitment to always watch over and care for his people.  And that is exactly what David did for Mephibosheth.
            Oftentimes, church leaders and parishioners wonder how to attract solid upper middle-class people.  Or, at least people who are much like themselves.  Those put-together-people would be able to help support the church, sustain the budget, and provide fresh volunteers for getting things done.  It is the standard operating procedure for many places.
            But what if we took a lesson from David and turned this on its head.  Instead, we scan the horizon and wonder if there are any broken people out there in our sphere of influence for whom we can show God’s steadfast love, mercy, grace, and kindness.  And then do it. Without forming a committee.
            David made a space at his table for Mephibosheth.  One practical way we can show grace is by opening our dinner table to another.  Anyone can do it.  My wife and I, back in our early years, didn’t even have a kitchen table.  But that didn’t stop us.  We invited people to share peanut butter and jelly sandwiches with us on the floor of our tiny apartment.
            We can create space and loving mercy at church by opening the Table to the spiritually disabled.  Broken and hurting people need the healing of communion with God and the Body of Christ more than anyone.  In some sense, this is all of us.  Everyone needs the healing which can result from participating in the Lord’s Supper.
            Like David, inquire about the people in your neighborhood and community.  The first step is to find out who they are.  Then, second, find a way to meet them.  And, third, just say “hi” to them.  Let an invitation to share food together arise organically and naturally, without being forced and having an agenda other than the curiosity to discover another person.

            This can be done at church, as well.  Scanning the building for lost and lonely people, you will see them if you look.  Walk across the room and engage them in a merciful conversation worthy of your spiritual ancestor, David.  Pay attention to how the Spirit leads, and follow.  Let us know how it goes.

 

            All of God’s Word is about God’s merciful wooing of wayward people back to himself.  The Lord specializes in unfocused, fuzzy lives; and, gives grace.  Truly, grace is the Word.

Psalm 35:1-10

            Sometimes you just have to tell it like it is.  There is a time to do your best in putting up a good face and dealing with people who don’t ever stop gossiping, slandering, and trying to get their way.  But there is also a time to call such behavior “evil” and cry out to God for help.
            Psalm 35 is a classic prayer in the category called “imprecatory psalms.”  The term “imprecatory” means to call down a curse on a person or group of people.  Maybe this surprises you that there is such language in the Bible.  In fact, there are 18 such imprecatory psalms which make a clear petition to God for him to turn the evil back on themselves that they inflict (or try to inflict) on others.
            I’m a believer in making simple observations about the biblical text.  Let’s observe a few things about such psalms:
1.      David asks God to deal with the evil behavior of powerful people.
Unlike most of us, David went through a time in is life where there were powerful people who were literally trying to hunt him down and take his life.  As much as we might speculate whether David wanted to take matters into his own hands, the fact remains that he didn’t.  David relied on God to execute judgment.
2.     David did not hold his feelings back in describing exactly what he wanted God to do.
There is nothing sanitized here in the psalm.  David was understandably upset.  He did nothing wrong, yet he was being chased like an animal.  David said it plainly to God: “attack my attackers;” “aim your spear at everyone who hunts me down;” “send your angel after them;” “surprise them with disaster;” and, “let them fall and rot in the pits they have dug.”  Whatever you might think about how a proper Christian ought to say and pray, imprecatory curses might not be your first thought.  But here they are, out there for us to read in the Holy Bible.
3.     The psalms are the prayer book of the church.
That includes the imprecatory psalms.  Yes, they ought to be prayed by us right along with psalms of praise, thanksgiving, and song.  I want you to think what might be a radical thought for you: We ought to include imprecatory prayers in our regular rhythms, routines, and rituals of prayer.
 
            Evil will not have the last word.  God opposes the proud and the arrogant who step on others to get their way.  But he gives grace to the humble, that is, those who look to him for justice and righteousness; are open about their feelings of hurt and upsetedness; and, lift-up imprecatory prayers which are biblically consistent.

 

Saving God, you protect the helpless from those in power and save the poor and needy who cry out to you.  Mighty God, turn back on those with slanderous tongues, gossiping words, and sinful actions the evil they intend to inflict on others.  Let them fall into a deep black hole for which they cannot get out and harm anyone again; through King Jesus, our Savior, in the assistance of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

2 Samuel 1:4-27

            In the evangelical church today it is sometimes looked down upon to grieve since we know the reality of heaven.  This is both wrongheaded and unbiblical.  Bereavement in Scripture is a reality and recognized as an important part of coming to grips with death.  Far from stuffing his feelings, David personally expressed his grief and agony over the death of his best friend.
 
            Here are a few observations about David’s lament:  it was not only personal, but was voiced publically, meaning that others were invited to grieve along with him; it affirmed the tragedy of death and its deep impact upon us; it focused on remembering the positive characteristics of the deceased; and, it was verbalized with heartfelt thoughts and emotions.
 
            Grief and lament is as individual as a fingerprint; there is not fixed process to a person’s bereavement.  Therefore we cannot pigeon-hole ourselves or someone else to fit a certain way of grieving.  But no matter how we grieve, we must do it so that we come to a point of making sense how to live without the person’s presence and relationship.  David was close to the Lord, and God’s presence was the most decisive factor in helping him move on to the demands of serving others as their new king.
 

 

            Compassionate God, you are present with all who grieve and lament this day.  Let your Holy Spirit come alongside and encourage those in bereavement, and enable me to be a conduit of blessing to them.  May your grace be sufficient for us all; through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.

Psalm 31:9-16


            David of old knew first-hand about suffering through hard circumstances.  There were times when he felt completely overwhelmed by evil people who were trying to take his life.  If we could put ourselves in David’s sandals we might totally understand why he was worn-out to the point of not sleeping, not eating well, even with a hint of paranoia.  David entrusted himself to God, and truly believed he was in the Lord’s hands – and that fact was his go-to truth.
             There are times when we all struggle with why afflictions happen to us, in whatever form they might take in us.  Yet, it is in the times of being forgotten by others that we are most remembered by God; it is in the situations of trouble that God is the expert in deliverance; it is when people revile us, say terrible things about us, and talk behind our backs that God comes alongside and whispers his grace and steadfast love to us.  In other words, it is only when life is downright hard that we can see a soft-hearted God standing to help us and hold us.
             So, the psalms are the consummate place to run when we are most in need.  They provide the means to lift up heartfelt prayers when our own words fail us.  The psalms give us structure and meaning when the world around us makes no sense.  The psalms do not always give us answers to our most vexing questions, but they do point us to the God who can do something about the sin of this fallen world – Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.
             Sovereign God, life can often treat me poorly, yet you are always good to me.  Work in me a heart of faith and devotion to the point where my anxieties melt away, and trust takes over through the power of the Spirit.  Amen.

1 Kings 1:1-30

            A person’s impending death can bring out a lot of different behaviors in the people around the dying.  Death really ought to teach us how to live, how to face our limitations, and how to accept the inevitable.  Notice some of the responses of various people in today’s Old Testament lesson concerning the last days of the aged King David.
 
            The servants of David treat the king’s declining health as some sort of problem to be solved in order to avoid or put off his death.  Maybe David would be aroused through giving him a beautiful virgin, and he would get back to his old kingly self.  David’s son, Adonijah, on the other hand, has just the opposite response; he is impatient to see his father die so that he can pursue his own kingly aspirations.  Bathsheba, one of David’s wives and the mother of Solomon, wants to make sure her son becomes king.  It seems David is just a pawn who can help her negotiate a difficult situation.  Finally, there is Abishag, the young woman who was with David in his final days.  It is interesting that we do not have recorded a single word of what she said.  She merely serves as a witness to David’s deteriorating health. 
 
            Out of these different people, it is Abishag that perhaps teaches us more about death than anyone else.  She was simply present and served the king; Abishag was like the ancient version of a hospice volunteer.  When faced with the eventual death of a friend or family member, to be present, to listen, and to serve are likely the best forms of dealing with the situation.
 
            The Lord Jesus faced death.  He didn’t try to avoid it; he wasn’t impatient to get it over with; and, it was not a difficulty to stoically endure.  His death is our life.  Christ’s death has brought meaning to both life and to our eventual death.
 

 

            Gracious Lord Jesus, you faced the agony of death so that I could have life.  Thank you for your sacrifice, and for giving my life meaning and purpose.  May I live for you in life and in death.  Amen.

2 Samuel 2:1-7

            “David inquired of the LORD.”  This is a wonderful commentary that characterized the life of King David.  Saul had pursued David, seeking his life.  But now Saul had been killed in battle.  Any other person in the sandals of David would have immediately set about to do away with any rival factions, any people who had been loyal to the previous ruler.  But David was not just any other run-of-the-mill kind of king.  He did not presume to act on his own accord, or know exactly what he should do.  Instead, he inquired of the Lord.
 
            David not only did an astounding thing by not wiping out those loyal to Saul, but he did one better:  he showed steadfast love to the men of Jabesh-Gilead who had been devoted to Saul.  David blessed instead of cursed; he acted kindly instead of coldly; he honored the memory of Saul instead of stamping out any vestige of him from the land.  David did not venture to immediately consolidate his power and rule over Israel and Judah.  Rather, he sought God, and his actions reflected the nature and character of God.
 
            Perhaps our words and actions do not always reflect the character of God because we dare to speak and act apart from inquiry of the Lord.  Maybe we only seek the Lord if we have enough discretionary time at the end of the day, or if we are in a pickle we want to get out of.  What if we began each day with seeking the Lord?  What if our default disposition and immediate knee-jerk reaction to everything was to ask God what we should do?  If we carve plenty of time to do so each morning, maybe we will be known as people who show steadfast love, and people who are after God’s own heart.
 

 

            Loving God, you are attentive to all I say and do.  Let my words reflect your gracious character, and my actions work in accord with your good purposes to the glory of Jesus.  Amen.

Exposing Sin

 
 
            Sin is a reality.  It exists.  We all do it.  Everyone invokes the displeasure of God at various times or events in life.  The bald reality of church ministry is that it must deal with the presence of sin in both its members and its systems.  Even David, described as a man who was like God in the way he operated toward others, sinned egregiously at points in his life.  Undeniably, the biggest example of a fall in David’s life came in his adultery with Bathsheba, and the events that came afterward (2 Samuel 11).
 
            At the time of year when David should have been doing the work of a king, which was to protect and serve the nation of Israel as the military leader, he stayed in Jerusalem.  He was not doing his kingly duty (2 Samuel 11:1).  David was at the pinnacle of success.  There was relative peace.  There were no major threats to the nation.  The kingdom was generally happy and prosperous.  David had fought all his major military wars with great success and was securely in power.  At this point, he was a middle-aged man, not as vigorous as he once was with perhaps a bit of a paunch that comes with age.  And this is what set David up for a major fall:  he was content and resting on his laurels, walking around on the roof of his palace instead of in the trenches with his men.
 
            The word “sent” is used five times in the first six verses.  This is significant.  David sent people to do his bidding.  The portrayal here is not of the gracious king who is seeking to use his power for loving purposes in the kingdom; it is the picture of an earthly king doing what typical earthly kings did by ordering others around and using his authority to get what he wants.  We are meant to see the reversal in David’s disposition from outwardly gracious to inwardly selfish.  He set himself up for a big hairy audacious fall.  None of us are immune from falling into sin.
 
            This is not just how individuals fall; this is how institutions as well as churches plummet.  When any church begins to be concerned only for itself and what it can inwardly accomplish for its own and does not outwardly seek to be gracious to those not in the church, that church has set itself up for a collapse which will end in the displeasure of God.
 
            Stories of people who topple into sin are all pretty much the same.  Having some power, people use it to assert control over another person or group to get what they want.  We must call it what it is:  sin.  It is evil.  It is a violation of God.  There cannot be any turning away from sin if we do not call it sin to start with.  If we deny there is a problem, the problem will never be solved.  David committed adultery.  He lied.  He manipulated.  He covered-up.  David murdered not only Uriah, but other men in the regiment to ensure that he would be dead.  This was not a mistake.  It wasn’t a lapse in judgment.  It was sin in all its foulness and degradation.  And the way to deal with it would not be to say something like “I did it, but it wasn’t really me; I’m not really like that!”  Well, apparently, you are.  Maybe David thought he was above all this and believed it wasn’t really something he could ever do.  But he did.
 
            What is more:  sin causes us to sell-out our principles.  Sin only begets more sin until we deal with it.  Sin will always distort the truth so that we minimize the impact of our words and actions.  The opposite of repentance is cover-up.  Truth celebrates openness and honesty; sin seeks the shadows and prizes secrecy.  Many people have fallen into awful sin.  The first step is not to minimize it, ignore it, or pretend it isn’t that big of a deal.  The first step is to agree with God that this is sin and to admit that it displeases him.  If we do not go down this path of truth, then we will be forever encrusting our lives with ways of ensuring that no one ever knows.  In fact, much of religious legalism is nothing more than a person piling on the rules in order for others to not see the sin that hides deep within.  Turning from the sin and receiving the grace of forgiveness of Jesus Christ is the only true and real path to spiritual wholeness and happiness in life.
 
            Results that satisfy us do not necessarily satisfy God.  David accomplished what he wanted:  he covered up his sin and got the woman he wanted.  But God saw the whole thing and was not okay with any of it.  We cannot simply assume that because we do something and there was no immediate lightning strike that it was okay.  It does not matter if it happened yesterday, last month, or twenty years ago.  If we did not deal with the sin, God is not satisfied because he wants to dispense grace and he cannot give love and see a flourishing of the soul if we keep putting things out-of-sight out-of-mind.  To only satisfy ourselves is being a spiritual cannibal who eats other people alive.
 

 

            Outward success means little to God if the inward state of the church leadership and its members is a vacuous soul, bereft of the authentic spiritual connection of determining God’s intentions for a particular course of action.  Sin is not something to simply be managed; it is to be put to death through the cross of Christ and applied to life through intentional spiritual practices meant to genuinely connect with God.  To do less is to wander into a morass of consequences that damage people.  So, let us do the work of soul care so that the church will thrive in the grace of God in Christ.