Psalm 50:1-8, 22-23 – The Beauty in Brokenness

The Almighty God, the Lord, speaks;
    he calls to the whole earth from east to west.
God shines from Zion,
    the city perfect in its beauty.

Our God is coming, but not in silence;
    a raging fire is in front of him,
    a furious storm around him.
He calls heaven and earth as witnesses
    to see him judge his people.
He says, “Gather my faithful people to me,
    those who made a covenant with me by offering a sacrifice.”
The heavens proclaim that God is righteous,
    that he himself is judge.

“Listen, my people, and I will speak;
    I will testify against you, Israel.
    I am God, your God.
I do not reprimand you because of your sacrifices
    and the burnt offerings you always bring me….

“Listen to this, you that ignore me,
    or I will destroy you,
    and there will be no one to save you.
Giving thanks is the sacrifice that honors me,
    and I will surely save all who obey me.” (Good News Translation)

In the beginning, all of creation was a vessel filled with divine light. Then, it broke, and the shards of holiness were strewn across the earth. Those broken pieces are all around us. Sometimes, maybe oftentimes, we don’t see them because of our own darkness.

Ever since, the Lord has been on a mission, bending down, carefully looking for the broken shards, finding them, and picking them up. From east to west, God has been gathering together everyone on earth – the broken yet divinely lighted humans.

A major theme throughout the entirety of Holy Scripture is that God is reaching all kinds of people all over the world. Indeed, the Bible is a long unfolding drama of redemption in which the Lord does whatever it takes to restore a fundamentally broken world.

“Kintsugi” (literally, in English, “golden joinery”) is a centuries-old Japanese art form of repairing broken pottery with gold. Instead of rejoining broken ceramic pieces with a clear camouflaged adhesive, the kintsugi technique uses a special lacquer dusted with powdered gold. After restoration, beautiful seams of gold glint in the obvious cracks of the ceramic vessel. This also means that every restored ceramic piece has a unique appearance; no two of them are the same.

The Lord is presently in the divine workshop, putting broken shards of humanity together. And God isn’t trying to hide or disguise the cracks and flaws; it’s just the opposite: God celebrates the artifact by emphasizing it’s fractures and breaks. As it turns out, the restoration which the Lord employs brings the vessel to even greater beauty than it originally enjoyed. It’s the transformation of a new existence from the old.

The deepest yearning in every human soul is to become whole again, to return to their spiritual source, to experience belonging and union with the Beloved.

Amidst the human pain all around us, and within us, we can observe the sacred light, and turn in the direction of beauty. We can hear the call of God to respond with gratitude and thanksgiving, instead of relying upon some physical or monetary sacrifice to suffice our spiritual obligations.

We are here to participate with God in redeeming that which is broken. The sacrificial activity that honors the Lord, and gathers the strewn shards, is a grateful heart with lips that speak thankfulness. Humanity can only see the power of God to save and restore, whenever us jars of clay practice gratitude and obedience to the Lord.

The world’s observation of a perfect vessel is not what draws anyone to faith. Rather, it is seeing an imperfect vessel, put together with a divine glue of gold, the cracks visible and showing for all to notice. Perfectionism is repellent to most folk; it smacks of others attempting to appear something they are not; it’s disingenuous and insincere.

Imperfection, however, speaks of being genuine and real; it brings solidarity with others; it relates and seeks to connect. Observing broken pieces put back together through God’s kintsugi communicates that suffering can be changed into beauty.

Today’s psalm is a reminder for us to stay optimistic when things fall apart and to celebrate the flaws and missteps of life. It teaches us that, when God breaks and destroys, this is not necessarily a mark of judgment. It lets us know that we can be calm when all falls apart. It reminds us that the fragility of humanity is not ugly but beautiful. It reminds us that amidst so much complexity, there is simple beauty all around us, if we will but seek and see.

In a world that has a hard time accepting all the breaks, scars, and imperfections of life, there is a God who is undisturbed by it all. The Lord gently, patiently, and skillfully puts us back together again so that a beautiful transformation of heart and life results.

The Lord said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore, I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong. (2 Corinthians 12:9-10, NIV)

Grant us, O God, not to be anxious about earthly things but to love things heavenly and, even now, while we are placed among things that are passing away, to hold fast to those that shall endure; through Christ our Lord, Amen.

Luke 9:51-62 – The Cost of Following Jesus

As the time approached for him to be taken up to heaven, Jesus resolutely set out for Jerusalem. And he sent messengers on ahead, who went into a Samaritan village to get things ready for him; but the people there did not welcome him, because he was heading for Jerusalem. When the disciples James and John saw this, they asked, “Lord, do you want us to call fire down from heaven to destroy them?” But Jesus turned and rebuked them. Then he and his disciples went to another village.

As they were walking along the road, a man said to him, “I will follow you wherever you go.”

Jesus replied, “Foxes have dens and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.”

He said to another man, “Follow me.”

But he replied, “Lord, first let me go and bury my father.”

Jesus said to him, “Let the dead bury their own dead, but you go and proclaim the kingdom of God.”

Still another said, “I will follow you, Lord; but first let me go back and say goodbye to my family.”

Jesus replied, “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for service in the kingdom of God.” (New International Version)

“The will of God, to which the law gives expression, is that men and women should defeat their enemies by loving them.”

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship

In his earthly ministry, Jesus made it clear to the large crowds of people following him that the life of a disciple is of utmost importance. People are to discover what following Jesus truly entails. They are to count the cost of Christian discipleship.

Following Jesus in Christian discipleship requires radical obedience. 

Love of family must not stand in the way. Jesus insisted our primary loyalty must lie with following him over every earthly relationship. To follow Jesus means that we will not use family responsibilities to avoid obeying Christ or use other loyalties and commitments to work and/or school as a reason to lay down our cross. 

This talk of Christian discipleship might smack of being like a cult. I don’t believe it is. Whereas a cult typically requires a radical withdrawal from the world so that the leader has complete control over the group, Jesus requires a radical engagement with the world.

Following Jesus is meant to impact the world with grace and love. Jesus went out of his way to not be like other leaders who use power, control, and gaslighting as the means of ruling and leading. Instead, Jesus shares his power with others. Christians are to bless the world and be involved in it.

The call of Jesus to Christian discipleship not only takes precedence, but it also re-defines the other loyalties we have. 

This call involves some level of detachment in order to pursue following Jesus. All of life is to be infused with being a disciple of Jesus. If we insist on making other commitments and loyalties as high a priority as following Jesus, we will find ourselves torn between two masters. 

Several years ago, I took a trip with some other church leaders into the Canadian wilderness. We were so far out in the boonies that we needed special first aid training because, if someone got hurt, it would be hours before help could come. 

We canoed the lakes and carried our backpacks and canoes between lakes for an entire week. Whatever we took with us, we had to carry. Some people thought they needed all kinds of clothes and other accessories. Not far into the week, they quickly began to leave things along the trail and learned, over time, that what they thought was important in their life, wasn’t really important to what they were doing.

It’s good to get back to basics and do what is essential. And what is of most importance is following Jesus. 

An un-salty disciple is worthless. Making a profession of Christ, without counting the cost, is foolish. Christian discipleship was never designed to be easy; it was intended to be a public display that Jesus is Savior and Lord in every area of life. That means we will struggle with questions, such as: 

  • How do I be a faithful follower of Jesus in my family? 
  • How do I be a disciple, and do the work of discipleship at my job? 
  • How do I practice following Jesus in my neighborhood, and everywhere I go?

If we do not plan to follow Jesus at home, at work, in the neighborhood, and in the world, we won’t, because all kinds of competing loyalties will take over.

Christians need to be very intentional about being disciples who loyally follow the words and ways of Jesus.The going will get difficult. And that’s okay.

“Jesus has many who love his kingdom in heaven, but few who bear his cross. He has many who desire comfort, but few who desire suffering. He finds many to share his feast, but few his fasting. All desire to rejoice with him, but few are willing to suffer for his sake. Many follow Jesus to the breaking of bread, but few to the drinking of the cup of his passion. Many admire his miracles, but few follow him in the humiliation of the cross.”

Thomas à Kempis, The Imitation of Christ

“Anyone who does not carry his cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.”

Jesus (Luke 14:27)

Joy comes not by pursuing happiness; it comes through discovering that to live is to die to self. Until we come to grips with that reality, we will likely be frustrated with our circumstances and other people.  

So, rather than trying to fit Jesus into our calendar, we are to let our calendar fill-out around the center of following Jesus. If Christians feel too busy for prayer; or for daily reading of Holy Scripture; or for loving one another; or for making disciples, then they have lost their way and must listen to the call of Jesus to be his disciple.

How, then, shall we live? What shall we do?

“Jesus stands between us and God, and for that very reason he stands between us and all other people and things. Christ is the Mediator, not only between God and people, but between person to person, between humanity and reality.”

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship

Imagine that in our heart is a big conference room including a big table, leather chairs, coffee, bottled water, and a whiteboard. A committee sits around this table in your heart. There is the social self, the private self, the work self, the sexual self, the recreational self, the religious self, and others.

The committee is arguing, debating, and voting. They’re agitated and upset. Rarely can they come to a unanimous, wholehearted decision.

We tell ourselves we’re this way because of our many responsibilities or our high level of stress. Yet, the truth is that we are internally divided, unfocused, hesitant, and feeling trapped. 

One way of dealing with this situation is to invite Jesus to come sit as a committee member. Give him a vote, too. But then he becomes just one more complication.

A better way is to say to Jesus, “My life isn’t working. Please come in, become my CEO and fire my committee, every last one of them. I hand myself over to you. I am your responsibility now. Please run my whole life for me.” 

Being a disciple of Christ is not just adding Jesus; it is also subtracting the idols that are in my heart. 

Following Jesus is not for the faint of heart; it is for those who humbly acknowledge that Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life. This is the path of Christian discipleship. Let’s give Jesus his due: our very lives.

Gracious and almighty God, all hearts are open to you, all desires known, and no secrets are hid. Cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by the inspiration of your Holy Spirit so that we may perfectly love the Lord with all our hearts and magnify the holy Name of Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

2 Samuel 6:1-15 – Be Careful How You Celebrate

Ark of the Covenant by Isabel Piczek 1982, St. Norbert Catholic Church, Orange, California

David again assembled all the best men in Israel, 30,000 in number. David and all the men who were with him traveled to Baalah in Judah to bring up from there the ark of God which is called by the name of the Lord of Heaven’s Armies, who sits enthroned between the cherubim that are on it. They loaded the ark of God on a new cart and carried it from the house of Abinadab, which was on the hill. Uzzah and Ahio, the sons of Abinadab, were guiding the new cart. They brought it with the ark of God from the house of Abinadab on the hill. Ahio was walking in front of the ark, while David and all Israel were energetically celebrating before the Lord, singing and playing various stringed instruments, tambourines, rattles, and cymbals.

When they arrived at the threshing floor of Nacon, Uzzah reached out and grabbed hold of the ark of God, because the oxen stumbled. The Lord was so furious with Uzzah, he killed him on the spot for his negligence. He died right there beside the ark of God.

David was angry because the Lord attacked Uzzah; so, he called that place Perez Uzzah, which remains its name to this very day. David was afraid of the Lord that day and said, “How will the ark of the Lord ever come to me?” So, David was no longer willing to bring the ark of the Lord to be with him in the City of David. David left it in the house of Obed-Edom the Gittite. The ark of the Lord remained in the house of Obed-Edom the Gittite for three months.

The Lord blessed Obed-Edom and all his family.King David was told, “The Lord has blessed the family of Obed-Edom and everything he owns because of the ark of God.” So, David went and joyfully brought the ark of God from the house of Obed-Edom to the City of David. Those who carried the ark of the Lord took six steps and then David sacrificed an ox and a fatling calf. Now David, wearing a linen ephod, was dancing with all his strength before the Lord. David and all Israel were bringing up the ark of the Lord, shouting and blowing trumpets. (New English Translation)

The Christian season of Eastertide is a grand celebration of Christ’s resurrection and the new life we enjoy in Jesus Christ. Since God is the center of all things, celebrations need to be mindful. Nothing in life is a matter of doing whatever the heck we want to do.

Even celebration has its boundaries and limits.

The narrator who originally compiled, told, and wrote the today’s Old Testament lesson wanted to communicate something significant about God and how to relate to the Lord.

God put the big kibosh on David’s hoedown. At that time in the history of Israel, the ark was the foremost symbol of God’s presence with the people. Within the ark contained the tablets of the Ten Commandments (the symbol of God’s Word); the staff of the first priest, Aaron, (the symbol of God’s choice); and a pot of manna (the symbol of God’s provision). Thus, the ark was a holy object, pointing to a holy God.

The ark of the Lord was built during the time of Moses, when the ritual laws were established concerning offerings and how to approach God in worship. There were detailed prescriptions for how to construct all the sacred articles for worship. (Exodus 35:30-40:33) 

The ark was at the center of worship, representing the presence of God among the people. For nearly five-hundred years before David, the ark had become a familiar object in the life of Israel, always there, continually the symbol of God to the people.

I’ve been a Christian for many decades. One reason I refer to the seasons of the Christian Year in the present tense, is so that it doesn’t become old hat to me. Although I just presided over yet another Easter Sunday in my long tenure as a pastor, I am still in awe of Christ’s resurrection and am eternally grateful and full of joy over new life in Jesus Christ. I always want it to be fresh, as if I’m stepping up to the empty tomb for the first time.

Stained glass in the First Lutheran Church of
Washburn, North Dakota

Yet, we have all likely had the experience of something becoming so familiar, that we begin to lose sight of how important and valuable it really is. Not until we lose it, or something traumatic happens, do we wake up and take stock of its true significance. 

The Israelites had become lethargic and apathetic toward the worship of God, and it led to some disheartening and tragic circumstances. The people of God throughout the ages have always needed to be vigilant against the opiate of familiarity, dulling the senses to the importance of worship.

Moving the ark of the Lord to Jerusalem was one of the first acts David did as the king of Israel and Judah.  God was with David and brought him success against his enemies. David enjoyed a close relationship with God.  Even though David’s heart was in the right place, he made a huge miscalculation, which ended up offending God. 

David had the best of intentions in bringing the ark to Jerusalem and giving it a prominent place in the center of Jewish life. This was an exceptionally good plan. The problem, however, came in the manner the ark was carried from one place to another. 

God’s law laid out in careful detail how the ark was to be transported. Uzzah and Ahio were Levites charged with the ark’s care. Only the Levites could handle the ark and the holy objects of worship that went along with it.

Since it was the job of the Levites for hundreds of years, they knew better than to carry the ark of the Lord on a cart. God clearly told Moses that the ark was to have two long poles of acacia wood overlaid with gold inserted into four gold rings of the ark. The ark was to always be carried on the shoulders of the Levites with the two poles.

We are not told why Uzzah and Ahio were pulling the ark on a cart with oxen instead of carrying it in the prescribed way. Perhaps it was because the ark was incredibly heavy and no easy task to carry.  Maybe they decided it would be easier and more expedient to have the much stronger oxen pull the ark on a nice new cart; it would save a lot of energy transporting it over a long distance.

Or it could be that they were tired of moving the ark in the same old way they had always done it. Maybe it was old hat to them, and they were ready for something different.

For pragmatic people, Uzzah and Ahio’s approach makes a lot of sense. However, God was not okay with this arrangement. When the oxen stumbled and the ark was in danger of falling off the cart, Uzzah reflexively reached out to steady it.  That was the last act Uzzah ever did on this earth. God immediately put him down for his “irreverent act.”

So, here is the not so good idea: Evaluating the worship of God by common sense pragmatism, what we think will work best, and how we feel it ought to be done. Everything about worship is to pay attention to the holiness of God through our obedience. 

Whenever we avoid the prescriptions of Holy Scripture, however best the intentions might be, is not a good thing and people will get hurt. One can never justify an action that goes against God’s Word because people are praising God. Just because the heart is in the right place does not mean what is being done is okay.

David’s first response was anger, then fear. He gave his best effort, and it resulted in God’s disfavor. Perhaps David took for granted that the ark could be moved any old way he wanted to move it. 

Trouble with God happens whenever we value efficiency and expediency over obedience and submission.

The great error of Uzzah, resulting in his death, was trying to manage God. We do not take care of God; God takes care of us. God does not bow to us. The Lord doesn’t allow the creature to manage the Creator.

God wants a pure, unadulterated, and obedient worship celebration from people in the way God wants it to be done, period. It is not up for negotiation.

Holy God, we confess that we have too often forgotten we are yours. Sometimes we carry on our lives as if there was no God and we fall short of being a credible witness to you. For these things we ask your forgiveness and for your strength. Give us clear minds and open hearts so we may bear witness to you in our world. Remind us to be who you would have us to be regardless of what we are doing or who we are with. Hold us close and build our relationship with you and with those you have given us on earth, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Revelation 3:1-6 – Remember, Hold On, and Change

Ruins in the ancient city of Sardis (present day Sart, Turkey)

Write this to the angel of the church in Sardis:

These are the words of the one who holds God’s seven spirits and the seven stars: I know your works. You have the reputation of being alive, and you are in fact dead. Wake up and strengthen whatever you have left, teetering on the brink of death, for I’ve found that your works are far from complete in the eyes of my God. So, remember what you received and heard. Hold on to it and change your hearts and lives. If you don’t wake up, I will come like a thief, and you won’t know what time I will come upon you. But you do have a few people in Sardis who haven’t stained their clothing. They will walk with me clothed in white because they are worthy. Those who emerge victorious will wear white clothing like this. I won’t scratch out their names from the scroll of life but will declare their names in the presence of my Father and his angels. If you can hear, listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches. (Common English Bible)

Many Christians reflexively think of good old Apostle Paul when it comes to biblical epistles (letters) to churches. Yet, contained within the first three chapters of Revelation are seven succinct letters to seven different churches. These letters are short and packed with a punch – and they don’t come from Paul.

What makes these short bursts of exhortation so powerful is that they come from Jesus himself. Yes, that Jesus – the Lord Jesus Christ, the head of the church. So, it seems to me that Christ’s observations about the church ought to carry more weight than anybody else’s thoughts.  

Christ was concerned about how far the church was from completing the work of God. So, he gave a pointed admonition, almost like a parent trying to awaken a teenager in the morning. “Wake up!” said Jesus because he found the church’s obedience incomplete and lacking strength. If this were the Apostle Paul talking, he would likely have framed it this way: “You have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.” (Romans 3:23)

Our Lord went directly to the heart of the church’s life… and it’s death. The stark reality is that these statements from Jesus remain penetrating and relevant for today’s church.

So, what is to be done about the situation of spiritual deadness in the church? 

Jesus did not leave the church hanging but in a few compact words let them know exactly what they are to do to remedy their spiritual malady: Remember. Hold on. Change. Keep the memory of sound instruction alive, always adjusting the life of the church to it. The Christian term for this is “repentance.”

Sometimes, if not many times, we may tend to forget the things we need to remember and remember the things we must forget. We are to follow God in a pattern of remembering and forgetting. God has said:

I wipe away your sins because of who I am. And so, I will forget the wrongs you have done. (Isaiah 43:25, CEV)

I will forgive their wrongdoing and never again remember their sins. (Jeremiah 31:34, CEB)

I will forget their sins and never again remember the evil they have done. (Hebrews 10:17, ERV)

Concerning those who have wronged us, we are to emulate God’s grace, mercy, and kindness through forgiveness. To “forget” does not mean performing a personal lobotomy but simply not to hold an offense against another by continually bringing it to mind. On the other hand, God remembers divine promises made to people. Likewise, we are to constantly bear in mind what God has put before us to remember:

For I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, “This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way he took the cup also, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.” For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes. (1 Corinthians 11:23-26, NRSV)

We need an abiding remembrance of the Lord Jesus, the very person who spoke to the church hundreds of years ago. It is in those times when we become distressed that we must center our memory on Christ:

We must focus on Jesus, the source and goal of our faith. He saw the joy ahead of him, so he endured death on the cross and ignored the disgrace it brought him. (Hebrews 12:2, GW)

Remembering Jesus Christ sets us on the path to fulfilling the work of God and completing that which has been given us to do. This is precisely why I choose to follow the Christian Year and remember time by having it centered around the life and ministry of Jesus.

Always think about Jesus Christ. He was brought back to life and is a descendant of David. This is the Good News that I tell others. (2 Timothy 2:8, GW)

I have been a constant example of how you can help those in need by working hard. You should remember the words of the Lord Jesus: “It is more blessed to give than to receive.” (Acts 20:35, NLT)

Let us remember together in prayer:

Awesome Lord Jesus, your words penetrate to the core my being. Strengthen me by the continuing presence of yourself through the Holy Spirit so that my every thought, word, and deed is done in your holy Name. Kindle in my heart a vision of your love and shine the light of your victory over sin, death, and hell over this dark world. Continually take me to yourself. Keep me in your wounds and mindful of your presence so that I shall fulfill all the will of God for my life through your divine enablement. Amen.