James 1:17-27 – Be Good because God Is Good

Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows. He chose to give us birth through the word of truth, that we might be a kind of first-fruits of all he created.

My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, because human anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires. Therefore, get rid of all moral filth and the evil that is so prevalent and humbly accept the word planted in you, which can save you.

Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says. Anyone who listens to the word but does not do what it says is like someone who looks at his face in a mirror and, after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like. But whoever looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom and continues in it—not forgetting what they have heard but doing it—they will be blessed in what they do.

Those who consider themselves religious and yet do not keep a tight rein on their tongues deceive themselves, and their religion is worthless. Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world. (New International Version)

God is Good – All the Time

And all the time – God is good. That statement is a bedrock foundation for Christian faith. Without a basic affirmation and belief of God’s goodness, our faith will experience cracks and not stand the test of hardship and difficulty in life. Without the steadfast conviction that God is good, the alternative is that God is somehow fickle or even mean – that God does not care about my problems.

The trials and tribulations of life are intended by God to be watershed experiences that prove the genuineness, or lack thereof, of our faith. When life is good, it is easy to say God is good. However, when it isn’t, we may slide into a belief system that thinks God is the source of our trouble. And if we have not been working on a relationship with God, we will have scant resources to draw from to help us.

God is good, and not mean. Every single good gift there is in this world comes from God. Nothing evil comes from God. God’s grace is constantly around us. If his grace were not here, it would be like living inside a dystopian novel, or a zombie apocalypse, where everyone is constantly looking over their shoulders for the next evil thing to happen. Although evil exists, it could be a whole lot worse if it were not for divine grace and goodness.

“This is true faith, a living confidence in the goodness of God.”

Martin Luther

God is immutable, that is, God’s goodness is ever-present. On this earth we are constantly subjected to changing light as the sun rises and sets, and as the clouds come and go. Yet, God does not change like shifting shadows. God is not fickle or capricious. God’s goodness is always at high noon, standing like an eternal sun in a bright blue sky radiating unbroken grace to us.

God’s goodness has delivered people from sin, death, and hell. God’s grace has given us new life. God created the world and pronounced it “good.” God formed you and called you “good.” And God has forgiven you, in Christ, and says it is “good.”

God gave us a good word for us to accept and live by.

Hurry Up and Listen

There is a great need for listeners today. Precious little productive communication takes place because there are so many people in a hyper-vigilant state airing their opinions. They talk over and on top of each other because they’ve already made-up their minds about how things really are and what should be done. Nobody is listening.

Bible reading is a primary source for listening to God. Yet, although many people own multiple Bibles, and Scripture is freely available through digital sources, far too many persons simply don’t read and listen to it.

Slow Down and Speak

God has given us two ears and one mouth so that we will listen twice as much as we talk.   

Too much talk leads to sin. Be sensible and keep your mouth shut. (Proverbs 10:19, NLT)

A loose tongue and constant opining happens because of faulty listening.  An inability to listen leads to a lack of understanding because we do not take the time to get the whole story. It’s easy to pronounce verdicts with little information, and offer bad advice, when there is little listening.

Have a Long Fuse

Be slow to anger. A fool speaks without thinking, which stirs up strife. Slow to listen and quick to speak leads to anger flares. An angry spirit is an unteachable spirit, unwilling to listen to both God and others. 

Rash words said in anger produce an ugly unrighteous life. Selfish opinionated anger produces harsh bitter words and kills God’s plan for a good life.

We are to accept the Word of God. Throwing labels at people only de-humanizes them. They become objects of anger and scorn, and not people made in God’s image. Nothing good comes from ignoring God’s Word and giving-in to bitterness. It destroys good people.

Get Rid of Evil

Get rid of all moral filth, and the evil that is so prevalent. The unwillingness to listen, a loose tongue, and unrighteous anger are moral evils. Evil is not only perpetuated by serial killers, terrorists, and other people different from us. In fact, the face of evil rarely comes to us in the form of red horns and a pitchfork.

Evil also resides as soft-core wickedness – common ordinary evil. The demonic can work in an almost ho-hum manner, subtly questioning whether anyone can really live up to the precepts of God’s Word, and generally undermining all that takes place to the glory of God.

The face of evil is neither hot nor cold, but “meh.” It is the bitter slow-cooked seething anger bubbling just underneath the surface which comes out in a plastic smile while offering up a morsel of slander based on a lack of listening well. It comes out in fake gestures of niceness while being quick to make judgments with little to no information.

Put away the “meh.” Receive God’s Word. Take a teachable posture. Stop and listen to what God’s Word has to say.

Be a Doer of God’s Word, Not Just a Hearer

The Word of God is not truly received until it is put into practice. 

It is not the hearers of the law who are righteous in God’s sight, but the doers of the law who will be justified. (Romans 2:13, NRSV) 

Blessed are those who hear the word of God and obey it (Luke 11:28, NIV). 

The person who only hears is like a Mr. Potato Head that is only ears. He cannot stand because he has no feet.  He cannot do anything because he has no hands. Mr. Potato Head needs some feet so that he can follow Jesus wherever he goes. And he needs hands so he can do God’s will.

Listening to the Word without obedience is just that – it is mere hearing.  Profession of faith means nothing without a practice of that faith; learning the Bible is useless without living it; and acceptance of the Word is nothing more than a mental exercise without action to back it up.  Profession, knowledge, and acceptance alone does not satisfy God’s plan for our lives. 

Pay Attention to the Person in the Mirror

A person looks at himself in the mirror. He clearly sees all his flaws. Yet he does not respond, likely because he doesn’t like what he sees. It’s silly to look into a mirror, see a major bedhead, and just do nothing about it and go to work as if everything were fine. We look. We examine. We hear. We see exactly who we are. And we can’t even identify ourselves in a police lineup.

The person forgets what he looks like because he does not really want to face himself. This isn’t a clueless guy. It is one who sees himself as he really is and chooses not to do anything about it.

Forgetfulness happens because of inaction. Remembrance, communion, and hope all occur through active participation. God blesses the one who looks hard into the mirror of God’s Word, then intentionally makes changes based on what he finds.

Obedience to God’s Word brings freedom, not bondage. Listening, seeing, adjusting, and changing is a freeing activity. That’s because it’s how we are designed to live.

Holy and good God, give me grace to see you, others, and myself clearly so that I will be conformed to the image of Jesus Christ. Amen.

Romans 15:1-6 – The Responsibility of the Powerful

We who are powerful need to be patient with the weakness of those who don’t have power, and not please ourselves. Each of us should please our neighbors for their good in order to build them up. Christ didn’t please himself, but, as it is written, The insults of those who insulted you fell on me. Whatever was written in the past was written for our instruction so that we could have hope through endurance and through the encouragement of the scriptures. May the God of endurance and encouragement give you the same attitude toward each other, similar to Christ Jesus’ attitude. That way you can glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ together with one voice. (Common English Bible)

“With great power comes great responsibility.”

Stan Lee

Within the ancient church in Rome there existed people of Jewish descent as well as non-Jews (Gentiles) who had come to embrace Christ. These two groups had vastly different backgrounds and experiences. Now they found themselves within one church, with only their shared commitment to Jesus.

Getting along was downright hard. It took a great deal of work for them to understand one another. Throughout the Apostle Paul’s letter to the believers in Rome, he consistently went back and forth, addressing both groups.

Frankly, Paul was most difficult on his fellow Jews. He took them to task. In his view, the Jewish believers had a responsibility to set a tone of Christian equality and fairness. Since the Jewish people have such a rich spiritual history as God’s people, it was Paul’s admonition they use their power on behalf of the non-Jewish Gentiles.

There were some Jewish believers who believed it best that the non-Jewish believers become religiously Jewish. They thought that Gentiles, with no background whatsoever in Old Testament belief and practice, would need to be like them in order to become good Christians.

Paul passionately believed otherwise. The Jewish position of privilege was to be used to encourage and help, not criticize and make things more difficult for non-Jewish persons. Jesus, a Jew himself, did this during his life and ministry on earth.

It came down to a belief of whether Jews ought to hold positions of power within the church, or that power should be shared. As it still is today, it was then with the Jewish people: They have carried an inordinate burden of the world’s sin upon their shoulders. Paul wanted them to continue this special calling – not taking advantage of an opportunity to be on top – but embracing their call for the sake of Christ’s gospel.

Whether Jew or Gentile, all together were to make every effort to do what leads to peace and the encouragement of one another. Those with power were to make room at the table (and Table!) for those without power.

The ideal which Paul so adamantly struggled for was unity – to have both Jew and Gentile together as sisters and brothers in the faith. There was never to be two churches – one Jewish and one Gentile. Christ’s death had abolished all barriers to unity. Now, everyone must come together and re-orient their lives around the good news of new life in Christ. (Ephesians 2:11-22)

Since Jesus closely identified with others, now we, his followers, are to demonstrate a genuine spirit of care and welfare for all people. This is a new family relationship which did not exist before Christ. God, however, has adopted all kinds of non-Jewish people into the family. So, we have responsibilities to get along with each other.

It must always begin with those who possess the power and privilege. They have the first responsibility to initiate an egalitarian society. The onus is on the powerful to ensure that a fully inclusive Christian ethic is established and maintained. We are to welcome others just as Christ welcomed us.

The Christian ethic of welcoming, encouraging, and including is helped by being mindful of the following:

  • Listen more. Talk less. A particular temptation for those with power is to make decisions without consulting or collaborating. Basic human respect comes from listening – neither interrupting nor overtalking. The less powerful folks need to be heard. Give them a seat at the table and honor them with your ears.

People who listen when they are corrected will live, but those who will not admit that they are wrong are in danger. (Proverbs 10:17, GNT)

  • Be curious. Respect another’s contribution. Be welcoming and open, whether or not you agree. Seek understanding rather than always trying to be understood. “Tell me more.” “Help me understand.” And “I’d like some clarification…” are all simple phrases of healthy curiosity which invites others to talk.

The people in Berea were more open-minded than those in Thessalonica. They were so glad to hear the message Paul told them. They studied the Scriptures every day to make sure that what they heard was really true. (Acts 17:11, ERV)

  • Don’t assume. Not everyone has had the same experiences. We don’t all know the same things. Take the posture of a learner. Be something of an anthropologist, seeking to discover rather than superimpose what you already believe on a different group of people.

Don’t fool yourselves! If any of you think you are wise in the things of this world, you will have to become foolish before you can be truly wise. (1 Corinthians 3:18, CEV)

  • Be aware of your own biases. We all have them. It takes some work to uncover our prejudices as well as our privileges.

I solemnly command you in the presence of God and Christ Jesus and the highest angels to obey these instructions without taking sides or showing favoritism to anyone. (1 Timothy 5:21, NLT)

  • Embrace empathy. We all know how it feels to be excluded, left out, and even shamed about something. Let’s use our own experiences to realize what others might be going through. Looking down on another, or dismissing them in some way, is not the way of our Lord.

Laugh with your happy friends when they’re happy; share tears when they’re down. Get along with each other; don’t be stuck-up. Make friends with nobodies; don’t be the great somebody. (Romans 12:15-16, MSG)

  • Focus on connection, not fear. In many groups and in many places, the “other,” the one who is different, is looked upon with suspicion as someone who might upset existing societal norms or steal something we have. Seeking to establish connection with others mitigates fear and anxious feelings.

As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. (Galatians 3:27-28, NRSV)

  • Be patient with others. People need our gentleness and our humble help, not our judgment and exasperation. Treat others the way you’d like to be treated.

Be humble and gentle in every way. Be patient with each other and lovingly accept each other. (Ephesians 4:2, GW)

“So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.”

Jesus (Matthew 7:12, NIV)

That about sums up exactly what Paul intended to say. Now go and do likewise.

O God, in accepting one another wholeheartedly, fully, and completely, we accept you. Fill us then with love and let us be bound together with love as we live our lives, united in this one spirit which makes you present in the world, and which makes you witness to the ultimate reality that is love. Love has overcome. Love is victorious. You are Love. Amen.

Hebrews 2:1-4 – Learning to Pay Attention

We must give our full attention to what we were told, so that we won’t drift away. The message spoken by angels proved to be true, and all who disobeyed or rejected it were punished as they deserved. So, if we refuse this great way of being saved, how can we hope to escape? The Lord himself was the first to tell about it, and people who heard the message proved to us that it was true. God himself showed that his message was true by working all kinds of powerful miracles and wonders. He also gave his Holy Spirit to anyone he chose to. (CEV)

My three girls all have attention deficit disorder (A.D.D.). You might think this is a disadvantage. Rather, since the biology of their brains do not have good filters for sifting out all the stimuli which they hear each day, each of them are much more intentional about picking out the voice they want to hear and engaging with it. Whereas you and I might take this for granted, my girls know the value of creating the skills to pay attention.

We stand at the cusp of Lent, just two days from now. A healthy way of looking at this important season in the Christian Year is that it is a time to listen. It is the opportunity and privilege of giving our complete attention to Jesus as we plod along the 40-day path to Easter. And we need to develop some solid skills in paying attention, whether we have A.D.D. or not.

The cost of not developing such skills is that we will drift away. Taking for granted that we are Christians, that we know something about salvation, and are basically good people, might only be setting us up for spiritual failure. That is, we think we already know about Christ’s person and work of salvation, so we fail to really pay attention. Bad idea.

Assuming we are paying attention is not the same thing as actually doing it. Assumptions lead to drifting away from truth. We are meant to have continual and constant reminders of Christ and his redemptive events. This is what Lent intends for us. To ignore the wisdom of two-thousand years of church practice puts us in a precarious position of being lost at sea.

For the next six weeks, make the choice that you will pay attention to Christ each day through the following:

  • Reading Scripture every day with a combination of standing and sitting, reading silently and out loud.
  • Holding a cross or other Christian reminder in your hand and feeling free to fidget with it.
  • Journaling your thoughts in a notebook.
  • Imposing time limits on yourself each day for the next 40 days.
  • Using different versions of the Bible to read throughout Lent.
  • Going outside occasionally and praying while walking.
  • Focusing on your breathing. Breathe out: “Speak Lord.” Breathe in: “I am listening.”
  • Drinking some coffee, tea, or something soothing.
  • Being mindful of distractions and acknowledging them without judging yourself.

The point is to have an intentional plan for paying attention. Do not assume you will be focused. May your journey with Jesus this season be a fresh experience in knowing him better.

Lord God, the world is rushing by. The days are sometimes a blur. But in those moments when I stop, time almost stands still. Keep my heart open to the simplicity of the day – to virtual interactions and connections with others without being distracted – and paying attention. Help me, Lord. Open my eyes. Open my ears. Open my heart to know you are with me, if I just pay attention. Amen.  

The Transfiguration of Christ

Transfiguration of Jesus by Macedonian artist Armando Alemdar

After six days Jesus took Peter, James, and John with him and led them up a high mountain, where they were all alone. There he was transfigured before them. His clothes became dazzling white, whiter than anyone in the world could bleach them. And there appeared before them Elijah and Moses, who were talking with Jesus.

Peter said to Jesus, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here. Let us put up three shelters—one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah.” (He did not know what to say, they were so frightened.)

Then a cloud appeared and covered them, and a voice came from the cloud: “This is my Son, whom I love. Listen to him!”

Suddenly, when they looked around, they no longer saw anyone with them except Jesus.

As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus gave them orders not to tell anyone what they had seen until the Son of Man had risen from the dead. (Mark 9:2-9, NIV)

It is quite possible that in reading this account of Christ’s transfiguration (or metamorphosis) that this all seems very strange, even confusing.  Maybe you just have no categories of thought to explain such an encounter.

In a Peanuts cartoon Charlie Brown, Lucy, and Linus were lying on their backs looking at the sky. Lucy says, “If you use your imagination you can see lots of things in the cloud formations. What do you think you see, Linus?”  Linus replies, “Well, those clouds up there look to me like the map of the British Honduras on the Caribbean… That cloud up there looks a little like the profile of Thomas Eakins, the famous painter and sculptor… And that group of clouds over there gives me the impression of the stoning of Stephen… I can see the Apostle Paul standing there to one side…”  Lucy responds, “Uh huh… that’s very good… what do you see in the clouds, Charlie Brown?” Charlie Brown sheepishly says, “Well, I was going to say a ducky and a horsie, but I changed my mind.”

Perhaps your spiritual life seems more like Charlie Brown than Linus. Compared to the experiences of others, you may not have had any defining moments of ecstasy, no shining Jesus right in front of you, or no spectacular vision of Christ. Maybe your life seems rather mundane and ordinary considering the many stories we have in the Gospels of Jesus doing the miraculous. 

Most of life is lived in the daily grind. In the week in and week out monotony of life, especially when one is sheltering in place, we need a bit of hope, maybe even a lot of hope. In fact, we need an occasional mountain top experience because those are glimpses into the future of what it will be like someday when the kingdom of God comes in all its fullness.

The account of Christ’s transfiguration comes after a hard frank discussion Jesus had with the disciples about his impending death. Jesus clearly taught them that he must suffer, be rejected, and killed. But in three days he would rise again. The disciples did not want to hear that, and Peter even rebuked Jesus for saying it. In response, Jesus said to them all:

“Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it. (Mark 8:34-35, NIV)

Jesus identified himself as the Suffering Servant, as the One who must suffer and die. However, he is also the One to be glorified. For Jesus, there had to be suffering before glory. And it is the same for us: There must be suffering before glory. The Christian life is filled with the difficulty of walking through the valley of the shadow of death but is also punctuated with mountain top experiences that give us hope to keep doing what Jesus did. In other words, we must listen to Jesus and follow him. The nature of our Christian walk is up and down. Both the mountain and the valley are spiritual realities of great importance.

We may have a lot of questions about Christ’s transfiguration. Jesus had a metamorphosis in front of the disciples’ eyes. Why?  What is the significance of this?  Was it just a demonstration to get the disciples’ attention?  Why are Moses and Elijah there?  What is really going on here?

Jesus intentionally took Peter, James, and John up the mountain to have this experience. Up to this point, a lot of rumors had been circulating about Jesus – that maybe Jesus was really Elijah come back, or some other prophet, perhaps even Moses himself, since no one knows where his body was when he died. Moses and Elijah showing up next to Jesus meant that Jesus is not them. 

In the Old Testament, Moses was the person used by God to deliver the Israelites out of their slavery in Egypt and brought them to the Promised Land.  Centuries later, when the Israelites had been in the land for quite a while, Elijah was the person used by God to bring about a great repentance of the people from the false god Baal, and a mighty revival to the exclusive worship of the Lord. 

As good as Moses and Elijah were back then, having them with Jesus on the mountain meant that it gets even better with Christ. Jesus is the Messiah, the True Deliverer, who saves the people from their sins. What is more, Jesus is the Ultimate Revivalist, bringing the true grace and love of God to people and calling them from legalistic religion back to the true worship of God.

Deliverance and revival were what Jesus was all about in his ministry. And he expects those who follow him to do the same. In the ministry of every believer, there will be suffering because we must take up our crosses; and there will also be glory, experiencing and seeing the deliverance of sin that comes from genuine revival. 

When I was a college student, a group of us Christian brothers met each week for encouragement and prayer. For a solid two-year period, at least one person a week was added to our group, having had a dramatic conversion to Christ. That was an incredible time of being on the mountain with Jesus and seeing him manifest himself in all his glory through changing people’s lives.

Yet, inevitably, the valley must come. What goes up must come down. And what we do when we are in the valley is crucial and important. It seems effortless to be a Christian on the mountain. It is a different thing altogether in the valley. Coming off the mountain can lead to all kinds of temptations, like wishing you were back on the mountain – looking back to some Golden Age where everything seemed to go great and people were enthused and excited about God. But the revival fires may have waned, and the glory departed. Then what?…

“This is my Son, whom I dearly love. Listen to him!”

mark 9:7, ceb

Here is what Jesus said…

“The right time is now here. God’s kingdom is very near. Change your hearts and lives, and believe the Good News!” (Mark 1:15, ERV)

“Come, follow me! I will teach you how to catch people instead of fish.” (Mark 1:17, GW).

 “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.” (Mark 2:17, NRSV)

“The seed that fell on the footpath represents those who hear the message, only to have Satan come at once and take it away. The seed on the rocky soil represents those who hear the message and immediately receive it with joy. But since they do not have deep roots, they do not last long. They fall away as soon as they have problems or are persecuted for believing God’s word. The seed that fell among the thorns represents others who hear God’s word, but all too quickly the message is crowded out by the worries of this life, the lure of wealth, and the desire for other things, so no fruit is produced. And the seed that fell on good soil represents those who hear and accept God’s word and produce a harvest of thirty, sixty, or even a hundred times as much as had been planted!” (Mark 4:15-20, NLT)

“Why are you such cowards? Don’t you have any faith at all?” (Mark 4:40, MSG)

“Don’t you know that nothing from the outside that enters a person has the power to contaminate?… It’s from the inside, from the human heart, that evil thoughts come: sexual sins, thefts, murders, adultery, greed, evil actions, deceit, unrestrained immorality, envy, insults, arrogance, and foolishness. All these evil things come from the inside and contaminate a person in God’s sight.” (Mark 7:18, 21-23, CEB)

“All things are possible for the one who believes.” (Mark 9:23, ERV)

“So, you want first place? Then take the last place. Be the servant of all.” (Mark 9:35, MSG)

“I tell you the truth, you must accept the kingdom of God as if you were a little child, or you will never enter it.” (Mark 10:15, NCV)

“The Son of Man will be betrayed to the religious leaders and scholars. They will sentence him to death. Then they will hand him over to the Romans, who will mock and spit on him, give him the third degree, and kill him. After three days he will rise alive.” (Mark 10:33-34, MSG)

“The Son of Man did not come to be a slave master, but a slave who will give his life to rescue many people.” (Mark 10:45, CEV)

So, I tell you to ask for what you want in prayer. And if you believe that you have received those things, then they will be yours. When you are praying and you remember that you are angry with another person about something, forgive that person. Forgive them so that your Father in heaven will also forgive your sins.” (Mark 11:24-25, ERV)

“Go into all the world and proclaim the good news to the whole creation.” (Mark 16:15, NRSV)

“This is my Son, whom I love. Listen to him!”  If you have had a mountain top experience with Jesus, let that encounter with him give you the drive and the hope to keep carrying the bucket through the valley, without living in the past. If you have never been on the mountain, today is the day to listen to Jesus and follow what he says. For us all, the answer to what is vexing us is found in Jesus Christ. 

May we all go to Jesus, listen to him, and obey what he says. May we know the Word of Christ, and bank on it. May we understand that our light and momentary sufferings will result in praise, honor, and glory when Jesus Christ is revealed.