Psalm 139:1-6, 13-18 – Specially Crafted by the Divine

Psalm 139 stained glass by Dutch artist Ted Felen (1931-2016)

Lord, you have examined me.
    You know me.
You know when I sit down and when I stand up.
    Even from far away, you comprehend my plans.
You study my traveling and resting.
    You are thoroughly familiar with all my ways.
There isn’t a word on my tongue, Lord,
    that you don’t already know completely.
You surround me—front and back.
    You put your hand on me.
That kind of knowledge is too much for me;
    it’s so high above me that I can’t reach it….

You are the one who created my innermost parts;
    you knit me together while I was still in my mother’s womb.
I give thanks to you that I was marvelously set apart.
    Your works are wonderful—I know that very well.
My bones weren’t hidden from you
    when I was being put together in a secret place,
    when I was being woven together in the deep parts of the earth.
Your eyes saw my embryo,
    and on your scroll every day was written that was being formed for me,
    before any one of them had yet happened.
God, your plans are incomprehensible to me!
    Their total number is countless!
If I tried to count them—they outnumber grains of sand!
    If I came to the very end—I’d still be with you. (CEB)

It is no wonder so many people struggle with their self-image. Beautiful people reign in television and movies; the rich and powerful are highlighted in the media; and people with perfect teeth and immaculate attire are splashed in front of us in the daily barrage of advertisements. Meanwhile, the rest of us 99% of the population quickly notice we do not measure up to such a standard. You don’t have to be a people watcher to know that less than perfect bodies are the norm and that most folks do not have a budget to live like the other 1% humanity.

If we make comparisons with others too much and for too long, it gets downright depressing. Yet, into this dark abyss of one’s self-image enters the biblical truth that each one of us, no matter our station in life, was personally hand-crafted by a heavenly Being who loves us dearly. We are indeed fearfully and wonderfully made.

The Creator God took great care to make us and form us just so. The psalmist, David, praised God for the way we were created. The real standard from which we ought to judge ourselves is this: God knows us intimately, inside-and-out, and neither condemns us nor shames us but loves us wholly.

Psalm 139 by Dutch painter Ellen Van Randeraat, 2013

So then, rather than wasting our emotional energy and mental faculties on wishing we looked different or were more like so-and-so who seems to always have it all together, try practicing what David did: Praise God. 

Whenever we have the notion that we do not measure up to our imposed arbitrary standard, keep in mind that the only real measurement is grace. No matter who we are, the entire race of humanity has been created in the image of God, and, on that basis alone, we have inherent value, worth, and majesty. Let us, then, treat ourselves and others with the yardstick of grace.

The inner critic, that is, the inner judgmental dialogue we have with ourselves, needs to be replaced with the truth of Psalm 139. Although we might be rather hard on ourselves and say things in the reclusive parts of our minds and hearts that we would never say to others, nor tolerate others saying about someone else – God speaks to us with tender words of grace. Perhaps you think that only you know the depth of your own sorrows, hurts, fears, insecurities, and worries.  Except….

God. The Lord knows it all intimately – and is not one bit repulsed. You see, God knows that the answer to all the self-doubts is Divine care and protection. You and I have the freedom to plumb the recesses of our hearts and souls – to bring out all that is inside the cluttered closet of our minds and lay it all on the table without fear of God calling you what you call yourself.

Therefore, please do not quickly pass over the inspired words from Holy Scripture contained in today’s psalm. Take the time to carefully digest each phrase slowly so that the message becomes internalized and believed in real-time experience.

One of the theories of human psychology is that people are driven by two primary needs: 

  1. To intimately know another person.
  2. To be intimately known by another person. 

God knows us even better than we know ourselves – and still loves us! There is nothing we learn about ourselves that God does not already know. No human relationship can even come close to the level of knowing that God has for us and about us.

To know God is perhaps the greatest and highest pursuit we could ever enjoy. God is so immense and infinite that we will spend an eternity getting to know the Lord and will never get to the end of it. That is the kind of God we serve. Be encouraged today and always with the reality that you are known and can know God – and even more, loved deeply as a specially fashioned creature.

O God, thank you that I am wonderfully made in your likeness.  I praise you that I am fully accepted, even when I do not accept myself.  In Jesus Christ you have demonstrated the height of your love and mercy.  May this grace be with me every day so that I will conduct myself in a manner worthy of being part of the human family.  Amen.

Luke 6:27-31 – Love Your Enemies

“But to you who are listening I say: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you. If someone slaps you on one cheek, turn to them the other also. If someone takes your coat, do not withhold your shirt from them. Give to everyone who asks you, and if anyone takes what belongs to you, do not demand it back. Do to others as you would have them do to you.” NIV)

“Maturity is looking at every person we meet and saying to yourself, ‘I will never, God helping me, do anything to harm you: not by angrily lashing out at you, lusting over you, faithlessly slipping away from you, verbally hitting back at you, or even justifiably disliking you.’”

–Frederick Dale Bruner

Here are a few rhetorical questions, considering the astounding words from Jesus to love enemies: Have you ever had someone not like you?  Offend you? Purposely say or do things that upset you? I once had a next-door neighbor who was plain mean. Once, when my dog accidentally strayed into her yard and left a package, she picked it up and placed the package directly in front of my backdoor. 

When such things happen, it is tempting to respond in kind with the same behavior as the obnoxious person.  Many of us have sly passive aggressive tendencies of getting back at others when they do or say offensive things, and we consider them an enemy.

The situation with my neighbor was frustrating, yet quite benign. It is an entirely different matter trying to love someone who has deeply hurt us. Their words of malice or actions of abuse are evil, and we naturally seek to defend and respond by hurting them back. This is no trite saying of Jesus to proclaim that we are to love the enemy. It will be hard to love a villain apart from the grace of God, and Jesus knew what he was asking of us.  He does not ask of us anything that he himself has not already done.

We are often pleased with ourselves if we love our family and friends, because even that is a struggle for us, at times. We need to treat all people with respect and kindness, even active love, because that is what God does.

Jesus did not say anything new in calling for neighbor love. The Old Testament clearly says to do so: 

You must not take revenge nor hold a grudge against any of your people; instead, you must love your neighbor as yourself; I am the Lord. (Leviticus 19:18, CEB)

Nowhere in the Old Testament does it say to hate your enemy. However, over time, the idea became popular that if we are told to love our neighbor, then we must hate our enemy (who is not our neighbor). Jesus was once asked, “Who is my neighbor?” He responded by telling the parable of the Good Samaritan. The conclusion to that parable is that everyone I encounter is my neighbor, and so must be shown mercy when they are in need. (Luke 10:25-37)

Jesus let us know that when we walk in the way of love, we will sometimes be treated harshly by the world (Matthew 5:10-12).  When that happens, Christ says we must not exact revenge or retaliate. Even more, we are to respond with overt gestures of love, rather than simply ignoring them.

We are to pray for our enemies. It is hard to hate someone or a group of people when we are devoted to praying for them. Pray the Spirit would open their eyes so they can see the error of their way. Make sure to leave the judgment to God, for that is divine business, not ours.

We are to love because God loves. To love those who offend us emulates God’s benevolence. When we love our enemies, without expecting anything in return, we imitate God’s character as children of God:

Watch what God does, and then you do it, like children who learn proper behavior from their parents. Mostly what God does is love you. Keep company with him and learn a life of love. Observe how Christ loved us. His love was not cautious but extravagant. He did not love to get something from us but to give everything of himself to us. Love like that. (Ephesians 5:1-2, MSG)

If we have no love for our enemies, then we are no different from them. Christians are to be distinctive because of the way they treat others, especially outside the faith. We are to model our lives after God’s love, not by the standard of niceness to those who are nice to us. God does not expect us to live as followers of Jesus by only showing reciprocity, that is, just giving back to those who already have given something to us. Instead, we give even when we are persecuted. We do this because God shows no distinction in the distribution of sunshine and rain. Showing basic respect and goodness to all people, no matter who they are, can be God’s rain and sun toward others.

“To return evil for good is devilish. To return good for good is human. To return good for evil is divine. To love as God loves is moral perfection.” Alfred Plummer

Grace, undeserved kindness, is not something we can just conjure up, as if we might will ourselves to love our enemies. It is not natural – it is supernatural, and so must come from a supernatural Being. 

During World War II, a Lutheran pastor, imprisoned in a German concentration camp, was tortured by an S.S. officer who wanted to force him to a confession.  The pastor did not respond to the torture.  His silence only enraged the officer to such a degree that he hit the pastor harder and harder until he finally exploded and shouted at him, “don’t you know that I can kill you!?”  The pastor looked him the eye and said, “Yes, I know – do what you want – but I have already died.”  At that point, the officer lost power over the pastor.  All of the officer’s cruelty had been based on the idea that the pastor would hold onto his life as his most valuable property and would be willing to give a confession in exchange for his life.  But with the grounds for his violence gone, torture had become a ridiculous and futile activity.

Our human relationships may easily become subject to verbal violence, bitterness, and destruction, when we make enemies of each other and treat people as properties to be defended or conquered instead of precious gifts to be received. If we have nothing to defend, then we have no enemies who can harm us.

Jesus, Prince of Peace,
you have asked us to love our enemies 
and pray for those who persecute us.
We pray for our enemies and those who oppose us.

With the help of the Holy Spirit, 
may all people learn to work together 
for the justice which brings true and lasting peace.
Holy Spirit of God, we ask you for the strength and the grace to love those who harm us, that we may shine as beacons of Christian light in a world of revenge, retaliation, and darkness.

We pray for those who have hurt us.
Bless them always and in every way, Lord.

We pray for those who hate us.
Bless them always and in every way, Lord.

We pray for those who insult us.
Bless them always and in every way, Lord.

We pray for those who have stolen from us.
Bless them always and in every way, Lord.

We pray for those who will not hear us.
Bless them always and in every way, Lord.

We pray for those who have hurt our church.
Bless them always and in every way, Lord.  Amen.

Hebrews 8:1-13 – Deliverance through a Manger

God Is With Us, by Malaysian artist Hanna Varghese, 2006

Now the main point of what we are saying is this: We do have such a high priest, who sat down at the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in heaven, and who serves in the sanctuary, the true tabernacle set up by the Lord, not by a mere human being.

Every high priest is appointed to offer both gifts and sacrifices, and so it was necessary for this one also to have something to offer. If he were on earth, he would not be a priest, for there are already priests who offer the gifts prescribed by the law. They serve at a sanctuary that is a copy and shadow of what is in heaven. Therefore, Moses was warned when he was about to build the tabernacle: “See to it that you make everything according to the pattern shown you on the mountain.” But in fact, the ministry Jesus has received is as superior to theirs as the covenant of which he is mediator is superior to the old one, since the new covenant is established on better promises.

For if there had been nothing wrong with that first covenant, no place would have been sought for another. But God found fault with the people and said:

“The days are coming, declares the Lord,
    when I will make a new covenant
with the people of Israel
    and with the people of Judah.
It will not be like the covenant
    I made with their ancestors
when I took them by the hand
    to lead them out of Egypt,
because they did not remain faithful to my covenant,
    and I turned away from them,
declares the Lord.
This is the covenant I will establish with the people of Israel
    after that time, declares the Lord.
I will put my laws in their minds
    and write them on their hearts.
I will be their God,
    and they will be my people.
No longer will they teach their neighbor,
    or say to one another, ‘Know the Lord,’
because they will all know me,
    from the least of them to the greatest.
For I will forgive their wickedness
    and will remember their sins no more.”

By calling this covenant “new,” he has made the first one obsolete; and what is obsolete and outdated will soon disappear. (NIV)

Our wait is nearly over. Christmas Day is almost here. The Messiah is coming. I genuinely believe that Jesus is the mid-point of history; everything for all time hinges upon Christ’s incarnation. The most cataclysmic event in the history of the world is a birth. The hopes of humanity are focused, of all things, in a stinky old feeding trough for animals – a manger.

Yes, Christians put a lot of focus on the cross and resurrection. Yet, the incarnation was the signature event of God’s breaking into this world. The inconceivable was conceived. God became human. Nothing would ever be the same again….

Nativity by African artist Joseph Mulamba-Mandangi, 2001

Jesus is our great high priest, the nexus between heaven and earth. All else are only mere shadows of the real Savior. Christ is the hinge upon which our own personal lives turn. The old system of law fades and gives way to the person for whom it all pointed. For the law, as important as it was, has never been able to save. In Christ there is a new covenant established by grace, taking care of the sin issue once for all.

Through the Christ child, all other means of deliverance have become obsolete. No matter how much he washed his hands, Pilate could not wash away his guilt. Despite all our efforts to hide or undo our shame, it will not go away. It is through Jesus that all guilt and shame have been banished. Human iniquity is taken away. All that we have done and left undone is forgiven – our sin is purged forever.

A new age has dawned. A new era has been inaugurated. The miracle of the Nativity explodes with continuing effect throughout history. Its continuing effects can still be felt, two-thousand years later. Nothing will ever undo the power of love and grace which was unleashed in the little town of Bethlehem.

Here is a clear and confident declaration to any and all in despondency or despair, no matter the reasons why: We may feel crushed, dejected, confused, or broken because of this past year’s events; but our salvation depends not on our mood or the constant changing of circumstances. Christ has offered himself once for all. The work is finished. Our faithful high priest is even now interceding for you and me in heaven.

Our faith is grounded not in our pedigree, our position, or our ability to produce but forever in what Christ has done in becoming human on our behalf. See the manger where he lies. Know that salvation is before us. Believe the promise of God.

May this eternal truth be always on our hearts:
That the God who breathed this world into being
Placed stars into the heavens
And designed a butterfly’s wing
Is the God who entrusted his life
to the care of ordinary people
became vulnerable that we might know
how strong is the power of Love
A mystery so deep it is impossible to grasp
A mystery so beautiful it is impossible to ignore.

Philippians 3:7-11 – The Ultimate Value

A mosaic of the Apostle Paul in St Isaac’s Cathedral, St. Petersburg, Russia

Christ has shown me that what I once thought was valuable is worthless. Nothing is as wonderful as knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. I have given up everything else and count it all as garbage. All I want is Christ and to know that I belong to him. I could not make myself acceptable to God by obeying the Law of Moses. God accepted me simply because of my faith in Christ. All I want is to know Christ and the power that raised him to life. I want to suffer and die as he did, so that somehow, I also may be raised to life. (CEV)

As I looked at today’s date, I realized that it was on this day thirty-six years ago that my now dear wife told me, “I love you.” Two months previous, I had told her, “I love you.” She did not reciprocate. Instead, this lovely girl whom I had come to love (it was not love at first sight for either of us, which is a much longer story for another time) flat out retorted back to me, “Well, I don’t love you. Listen, Mr., I’ve heard every line in the book. What’s your angle? What do you want from me?”

For me, I knew I what I had was genuine love and not infatuation because I found myself responding matter-of-factly, “There’s no angle. I love you. If you choose not to love me back, I’ll just keep loving you.” This threw her into a two-month long sort of existential angst in which she explored the depths of her own spirit to see if her best friend was her love, as well.

So, when the love of my life said to me on that day, “I love you,” I knew it came from a place of soul-searching, prayer, trepidation, deliberate resolve, and genuine sincerity. For my wife, to say those words meant she was committed to me. They were not said lightly. It took a lot for those words to be formed.

On that day thirty-six years ago, the both of us had amazing clarity about the direction of our lives. We were going to be together, and no other person would ever have the primary place we each now enjoyed with one another. To me, every other girl seemed like nothing compared to my beloved. And, I will still admit, my feelings have not changed one iota.

I picture the Apostle Paul going through a similar struggle and process of coming to Christ. And once he did commit, no one was ever going to usurp the place of Jesus in his life.

I honestly believe that the primary reason my dear wife and I have been together all this time and still love each other as if it were December 10, 1984 is because of our shared commitment and ultimate value of knowing Christ. For each of us, Jesus is everything. Our lives center around him. The grace of God in Christ shapes all our worldview and animates every action we take.

Together with the Apostle Paul, we want to know Christ and we will take whatever situation is necessary to realize a continual growth in grace with Jesus at our side. Just as the adversity, hardship, and difficulties we have faced together over the decades has caused to bring us even closer together, so facing all of it with Christ in the middle of it has brought us closer to God.

Although it may seem counter-intuitive, power and suffering go together. For example, weightlifting causes fibers of the muscles to sustain injury. So, the body repairs those damaged fibers by fusing them, which then increases the mass and size of the muscles. It is through suffering, even trauma, that muscles grow bigger and stronger.

Spiritual power results from undergoing suffering. Through hard circumstances, our spirits experience hurt. Yet, through the process of healing we become stronger, more resilient, and our faith grows. A deeper experience of Christ and a greater intimacy with Jesus results from identifying with him in his suffering. Show me a person with vigorous faith and I will show you a person who has been strengthened through suffering.

When Jesus Christ is our surpassing value, everything else is viewed differently – the past, present, and future take on new meaning. We tell ourselves an alternate story, based in the person and work of Christ. In this Christian season of Advent, we look back to the first advent of Christ’s incarnation; look forward to the second advent of Christ coming again; and, this shapes how we live in the present between the two advents accepting suffering as a gift and embracing fresh power as a means to serve others.

Yes, this is a special day for me. Yet, everyday is a special day when I can enjoy fellowship with my Lord together with my wife.

Almighty and eternal God, so draw my heart to Christ, so guide my mind, so fill my imagination, so control my will, that I may be wholly yours, utterly dedicated to you; and then use me, I pray you, as you will, and always to your glory and the welfare of your people; through the sufferings of my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ and in the his great resurrection power I pray. Amen.