Psalm 128 – Obey and Enjoy Happiness

Around Your Table by Melani Pyke

Happy are those who respect the Lord and obey him.
You will enjoy what you work for,
    and you will be blessed with good things.
Your wife will give you many children,
    like a vine that produces much fruit.
Your children will bring you much good,
    like olive branches that produce many olives.
This is how the one who respects the Lord
    will be blessed.
May the Lord bless you from Mount Zion;
    may you enjoy the good things of Jerusalem all your life.
May you see your grandchildren.

Let there be peace in Israel. (New Century Version)

Obedience and blessing go together like a hand in a glove. Holy Scripture consistently connects the call to obey the Lord with blessing from G-d. Indeed, in carefully observing wise and biblical instruction, one will typically enjoy divine favor and approval.

Keep in mind, however, this is not a math equation. Like 2+2=4 there are folks who expect a neat linear connection between their obedience and their blessing. In math theology, when a woman is unable to have children, or a child goes astray from their heritage, the parent concludes that they themselves must have been unfaithful to G-d’s law or are being punished. Conversely, with children who grow to be good citizens and respectful persons, the parents might conclude it was because of their superior observance to the spiritual life.

In both cases, parents take too much credit, either for a child’s wandering or success. As for kids going astray, even G-d had prodigal children, so cut ourselves some slack. As for children who maintain faithfulness, a lot of factors went into who they are. I suppose it is only natural to quickly assume we have far more control of than we really do.

This all cuts to the heart of biblical interpretation. If all Scripture is read literally, then we will likely see the Bible as a math equation where doing and saying the right things gets a predictable result of blessing. Yet, this mistakenly views promise and proverb as the same thing, and divine work with one person or group will be precisely the same for another. The wisdom literature of Scripture, which includes the psalms, were never designed as prescriptive decree but rather as the sage approach for work, worship, and family.

“Faith is only real when there is obedience, never without it, and faith only becomes faith in the act of obedience.”

Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Today’s psalm communicates the path of happiness coming through love and respect for G-d. It neither promises lots of kids, ensures money, nor guarantees smooth sailing. Rather, when one lives each day being cognizant and observant to center everything around the divine, then blessing and happiness will tend to follow.

Blessings and benedictions are given to sustain us in hope and confidence. The best things in life usually come through faith and family. So, when we choose to walk with G-d and travel down the ethical road, then life becomes full of peace and prosperity – perhaps not always in the manner we expect, yet blessing, nonetheless.

Humanity is hard-wired for blessing, for a steady diet of encouragement, acceptance, and approval from G-d and others. When this is withheld from us, unhappiness, even despair begins to settle. Giving and receiving blessing is at the heart of being fully human and alive. Our work and family life will likely be miserable if blessing is absent. Yet, with blessing, we have a sustainable form of happiness and enjoyment.

Most every good thing in life is obtained through a great deal of blood, sweat, and tears. Obedience is no easy task. It typically requires courage and is complicated in its application to life situations. Here are a few ways to maintain an obedient life to G-d:

  • Devote yourself to the daily reading of Scripture. One cannot obey that which is neither known nor remembered. A steady regimen of good old fashioned Bible reading is the best way to refresh the mind and incline the heart toward biblical commands. (Psalm 119:57-64)
  • Pray to listen and pay attention. There is more to prayer than petitions and praise. We must also practice silence and solitude so that we can give focused attention to hearing G-d, thus, obeying the Spirit. (Jeremiah 7:21-26)
  • Practice repentance. Being aware of our guilt and shame, acknowledging it, and naming it before G-d is the path of change – keeping us on the narrow road of obedience. (1 John 1:5-10)
  • Take the long view. Not all obedience is rewarded in this life but in the life to come. Perseverance and patience is needed to sustain obedience over the long haul of life. And, in the end, there are heavenly blessings awaiting us. (Hebrews 11:36-12:3)

Eternal God, by whose power we are created and by whose love we are redeemed, guide, strengthen, and bless us through your Spirit so that we may give ourselves to your service and live today in love to one another and to you, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

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.

1 Chronicles 10:1-14 – Faithfulness Matters

The Philistines fought against Israel in a battle at Mount Gilboa. Israel’s soldiers ran from the Philistines, and many of them were killed. The Philistines closed in on Saul and his sons and killed three of them: Jonathan, Abinadab, and Malchishua. The fighting was fierce around Saul, and he was gravely wounded by enemy arrows.

Saul told the soldier who carried his weapons, “Kill me with your sword! I don’t want those godless Philistines to torture and make fun of me.”

But the soldier was afraid to kill him. Then Saul stuck himself in the stomach with his own sword and fell on the blade. When the soldier realized that Saul was dead, he killed himself in the same way.

Saul, three of his sons, and all his male relatives were dead. The Israelites who lived in Jezreel Valley learned that their army had run away, and that Saul and his sons were dead. They ran away too, and the Philistines moved into the towns the Israelites left behind.

The next day the Philistines came back to the battlefield to carry away the weapons of the dead Israelite soldiers. When they found the bodies of Saul and his sons on Mount Gilboa, they took Saul’s weapons, pulled off his armor, and cut off his head. Then they sent messengers everywhere in Philistia to spread the news among their people and to thank the idols of their gods. They put Saul’s armor in the temple of their gods and hung his head in the temple of their god Dagon.

When the people who lived in Jabesh in Gilead heard what the Philistines had done to Saul, some brave men went to get his body and the bodies of his three sons. The men brought the bodies back to Jabesh, where they buried them under an oak tree. Then for seven days, they went without eating to show their sorrow.

Saul died because he was unfaithful and disobeyed the Lord. He even asked advice from a woman who talked to spirits of the dead, instead of asking the Lord. So, the Lord had Saul killed and gave his kingdom to David, the son of Jesse. (Contemporary English Version)

The books of Samuel and Chronicles contain similar content and material concerning the kings of Israel and Judah. Yet, whereas 1 & 2 Samuel gives a more straightforward narrative, 1 & 2 Chronicles often provides the narrative with explanatory comments. 

We have such a story in today’s Old Testament lesson. The last chapter of 1 Samuel gives an account of King Saul’s death, along with his sons. However, in 1 Chronicles 10, we get the narration of their deaths along with a clear concise note on why King Saul perished in battle:

Saul died because he was unfaithful to the Lord and hadn’t followed the Lord’s word. He even consulted a medium for guidance. He didn’t consult the Lord, so the Lord killed him and gave the kingdom to David, Jesse’s son. (1 Chronicles 10:14, CEB)

The original compiler of Chronicles did so for the Jewish exiles who were returning to Palestine. He did not want to simply recount the important stories of the kings of Israel; he wanted the exiles to know exactly why they went into exile to begin with, and how in the future they could keep it from happening again. So, Saul served as Exhibit A of the kind of person that erodes the true worship of God and lives against the grain of faithfulness to the Lord.

The true measure of a godly person is not in titles, positions, or membership. The real test of a faithful person is obedience to, and observance of, the revealed will of God contained in Holy Scripture. Thus, to read it, know it, and live it is one of the highest callings as God’s people.

Faith in the Bible is a complete trust in who God is and what God has done. The Lord shows faithfulness through steadfast love, gifting people with faith to obey, and remaining true to divine promises for humanity.

In the New Testament, the height of faith is to place one’s life completely in God’s hands, believing in the person and work of Jesus Christ. Faith involves both information and action.

For example, the Mackinac Bridge, connecting the upper and lower regions of Michigan, is an imposing structure. It’s the longest suspension bridge in the Western hemisphere at 26,372 feet. At its mid-point, the bridge’s roadway towers 200 feet above the Mackinac Straight.

The wind on the bridge can be punishing. In 1989, a woman died when her small car flew over the 3-foot-high railing and plunged into the water due to an excessively high gust of wind. I have crossed the bridge many times. Sometimes the bridge is open to road traffic, and sometimes not, due to the wind conditions. The bridge authorities even have a protocol about how to cross the bridge when it is windy but not excessively so (driving beside a truck).

This is all important and necessary information for crossing the Mackinac Bridge. Yet, knowledge alone is not enough. At some point, one needs to actually drive across the bridge. Information must lead to action. I couldn’t just cross the Straight between the two regions of Michigan at any point along the land with a blind faith that believes I’ll make it to the other side. I needed some knowledge. Then, I needed the courage to act on that knowledge.

The person who is scared crossing the bridge, and the person who thinks nothing of it, both make it to the other side. It isn’t the amount of faith that is important; it’s in what (or who) that faith is placed. Faith in the Bible is having some important and useful information about God, then putting that knowledge into action with a trust and commitment that you’ll make it to the other side.

Saul tried to cross over on his own terms. It didn’t go so well for him. His car was picked up and thrown into the Straight.

We need to be careful what and whom we consult when we are stressed. Not collaborating with God isn’t going to end well. Being faithful matters.

Who are you faithful to? Where is your trust placed? Because the answer to those questions determines which actions we will take.

Eternal God, you remain the same throughout the ages of time. Help me to be faithful to your standard of righteousness and live faithfully into the ways of Jesus, my Lord. Amen.

Overcoming the World

Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ is born of God, and everyone who loves the father loves his child as well. This is how we know that we love the children of God: by loving God and obeying his commands. In fact, this is love for God: to keep his commands. And his commands are not burdensome, for everyone born of God overcomes the world. This is the victory that has overcome the world, even our faith. Who is it that overcomes the world? Only the one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God. This is the one who came by water and blood—Jesus Christ. He did not come by water only, but by water and blood. And it is the Spirit who testifies because the Spirit is the truth. (1 John 5:1-6, NIV)

Faith, love, and obedience are tightly woven together to such an extent that to pull one of them out is to unravel the whole bunch. These three characteristics of the true Christian are vital and necessary to living the Christian life. They all must be present for the church to overcome the world.

The main verbs throughout the verses are the word “is.” And the verb tense is key. The verb clearly describes a past action of God which we as people need to receive. In other words, the grammar dictates that God has given us new birth.  We do not give ourselves spiritual birth any more than we can tell our mothers that it was us who gave birth to ourselves.

God saves us from sin and grants us forgiveness. This action is from God. We are recipients of God’s good grace toward us. There are three participles connected to this main verb:

  1. Believe
  2. Love
  3. Obey

A participle is a word which is connected to the verb’s action. So then, our actions are a result of God’s action toward us. To put it simply, a person born from God will believe, love, and obey. Just as a newborn baby first breathes, then learns to eat, sleeps, grows-up, learns to walk, and over time develops into an adult just like their mother and father, so the Christian who is born again from God exhibits faith, learns to love, and grows up developing the skills of obeying Jesus and following him, learning to walk in his ways, becoming just like him.

In the same way a child must learn and grow to have the necessary skills for facing the world in all its bigness, trials, and temptations, so the Christian must develop the abilities necessary to overcome the world. Those skills are faith, love, and obedience. Without them, we will be unable to deal with the world. But with them, we experience victory over the world.

The word, “overcome,” is a cognate word (related to) of “victory.”  That is, to overcome is to have firsthand exposure to the victory the Lord Jesus has achieved on the cross. Through being spiritually born again by God, we are set on a course requiring faith, love, and obedience to overcome the world. As we learn to apply these three spiritual characteristics to our lives, we experience practical victory over the world.

The term “world” are the patterns, systems, and operations of the world in direct contrast to how God operates. For example:

  • The world engages in revenge and payback when wronged, whereas the Christian learns to believe God as the Judge, loves the person who has offended them through prayer for their enemy, and obeys God through good works that seeks the welfare of the other. 
  • The world uses other people as either objects of their pleasure or to get ahead in life, whereas the Christian believes God will take care of their needs, will seek to love the other person instead of use them, and would rather obey God than be selfish. 
  • The world thinks nothing of lying, cheating, and stealing, if they can get away with it, whereas the Christian believes Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life, loves being a person of integrity, and obeys God even when it hurts.

This in no way means we avoid or belittle the world. In facing and overcoming the world, we need principled civility. Using faith, love, and obedience, we respect another’s viewpoint through growing in faith, expanding our hearts in love, and learning obedience through interaction with others for whom we disagree.

Where do we feel “the pull” in life from? Do we feel it from the world, or from God’s Word? We must learn how to deal with the worldly elements of our society in which we feel a pull and a tug to go along with it and want to give in to it. This requires a community of Christians engaging the world through faith, love, and obedience to overcome that pull.

Our call as Christians is not to just survive the world. If anyone could have had that kind of mentality, it was Helen Keller. Deaf, mute, and blind, she could have settled into just getting by and waiting for heaven. Yet, she accepted her situation, coped with it, and even transcended her limitations.  She did more than survive – she thrived. Helen Keller once said:

“The marvelous richness of human experience would lose something of rewarding joy if there were not limitations to overcome. The mountaintop would not be half so wonderful if there were no dark valleys to traverse.”

Helen Keller

We need faith in God, not ourselves. The Scripture says:

Trust in the Lord with all your heart,
    and do not rely on your own insight.
In all your ways acknowledge him,
    and he will make straight your paths. (Proverbs 3:5-6, NRSV)

We need to love God and others, and not the world. The Scripture says:

Don’t love the world’s ways. Don’t love the world’s goods. Love of the world squeezes out love for the Father. Practically everything that goes on in the world—wanting your own way, wanting everything for yourself, wanting to appear important—has nothing to do with the Father. It just isolates you from him. The world and all its wanting, wanting, wanting is on the way out—but whoever does what God wants is set for eternity. (1 John 2:15-17, MSG)

We need to obey the call of God, not the call of the world. Hear what Scripture says: 

The commandment that God has given us is: “Love God and love each other!” (1 John 4:21, CEV)

When faith, love, and obedience are working together as they were intended to, we will overcome the world and all its crud. We will keep ourselves from being polluted and stained by it.

Overcoming the world is a high calling from God. Faith means putting aside fear and taking the kind of risk God wants you to take. Love means putting aside hate and serving others, even when it hurts. Obedience means putting aside selfishness and choosing to do what is best for another person’s welfare. Being characterized by these three Christian virtues will have the effect of overcoming the world. It is not a burdensome or heavy way to live. It’s the way of Jesus.

Blessed Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, the God whom we serve: Sometimes our hearts and minds are flooded with fears. Sometimes we are paralyzed and overwhelmed and feel unable to go on. Yet today we hold onto the victory you have accomplished through the blood of Jesus Christ. You have told us not to fear, for you have overcome the world. So, we cling to you, believing your Word and your promises. In moments of crippling fear, we choose to hold your hand and believe; to love as we have been loved; and, to obey even in the most fearful places because we know that you have risen again.

Loving Lord Jesus, we surrender to you all that we are and hope to be. Holy Spirit, we invite you and all your ministry within us. Holy God of all, we offer you our heart, mind, body, soul, spirit, hopes, plans and dreams. We surrender to you our past, present and future problems, habits, character defects, attitudes, livelihood, resources, finances, medical coverage, occupation and all relationships. We give you our health, physical appearance, disabilities, family, marriage, children, grandchildren, and friendships.

We ask for your Lordship over every aspect of our lives. We surrender to you all our hurt, pain, worry, doubt, fear and anxiety, and ask you to wash us clean. We release everything into your compassionate care. Speak to us clearly, Lord. Open our ears to hear your voice. Open our hearts to commune with you more deeply. Open the doors that need to be opened and close the doors that need to be closed. Set our feet upon the straight and narrow road that leads to everlasting life. Amen.