Obey with Integrity and Love (Psalm 15)

God, who gets invited
    to dinner at your place?
How do we get on your guest list?

 “Walk straight,
    act right,
        tell the truth.

“Don’t hurt your friend,
    don’t blame your neighbor;
        despise the despicable.

“Keep your word even when it costs you,
    make an honest living,
        never take a bribe.

“You’ll never get
blacklisted
if you live like this.” (The Message)

Nearly all of us had to work hard to get good grades in school. Each schoolyear began with a blank slate; then, what we did with learning the lessons determined the grade.

So, it’s unthinkable for many of us to consider that we all begin God’s school with A’s. We’re all 4.0 students. There’s only a lower grade if we neglect to do the things necessary as an A student. And, as it turns out, the most important things are a matter of basic human kindness and respect for others.

At the end-of-the-year banquet, awards are given. If we’ve done what’s expected, then the invitation to come to the front and receive the award is assured.

Yet, if anyone has gone out of their way to be deliberately stupid and ignore what’s right, then they aren’t going to show up at the banquet. They’ll dismiss it as a waste of their time and blabber about how they don’t be around a bunch do-gooder pricks and Abe Lincoln’s, blah-blah-blah.

Integrity, honesty, kindness, accountability, and commitment matter. Virtue shows itself through the practice of obedience.

We might get hung up on obedience for a few reasons:

  1. Many Westerners, especially Americans, have a strong anti-authoritarian strain; obedience smacks them as something negative. For some, they would rather stick-it-to-the-man than obey. Even Christians might sacralize their disobedience by linking obedience to law – as if gospel and obedience are antithetical.
  2. A lot of people have been personally hurt because they tried to do the right thing by obeying their authorities, but it ended badly. Now, they aren’t so sure about the whole obedience thing.
  3. We just plain don’t want anyone else telling us what to do and not do; and that includes not wanting to obey God. So, we focus on the freedom to do what we want, to the exclusion of obedience.

Yet, there’s no way to get around the pervasive reality of obedience to Torah, to Yahweh. Obedience is both the glue which holds a people together, as well as the major means of expressing love to God and others.

Jesus said, “If you love me, obey my commandments.” (John 14:15, NLT)

Love and obedience go together in Holy Scripture like a hand in a glove. Jesus insisted that upholding Torah and loving others is by obedience to divine commands.

When Jesus first began his teaching and healing ministry, he sat all the people down who were following him and gave them a summary of the Old Testament understanding of God’s righteousness. These are the things, Jesus explained, that characterize a person who loves God:

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of God. 

Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted. 

Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. 

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. 

Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy. 

Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.  Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called sons of God. 

Blessed are they who are persecuted for righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of God (Matthew 5:12-17, NIV).

Obedient believers are characterized by their:

  • Authentic humility
  • Deep concern over sin, to the point of tears
  • Gentle and meek spirit toward others
  • Intense desire for personal righteousness and corporate justice
  • Daily life of mercy, purity, and peacemaking
  • Willingness to accept adversity as part of the spiritual life

“Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: Love your neighbor as yourself.”

Jesus (Matthew 22:36-40, NIV)

Humanity is meant for wholeness, integration, and alignment of head, heart, and gut – with the glue of obedient love. We are designed to have all of life in parity and balance – work, play, family, and faith – because God is Lord of it all, not just the spiritual parts.

Historic confessional Christianity acknowledges that obedience is both duty and delight – and they go together in perfect harmony.

Believers consider it a both a high charge and a wonderful privilege to love the Lord with a life devoted to obeying divine commands.

It’s just that sometimes we have our lives so planned and pre-determined that when God’s Spirit shows up to take us to a place of obedience, we struggle to realize what’s happening. And we miss what the Lord is doing in this world. 

At other times, we read scriptural commands and feel the gentle nudging of God’s Spirit, yet we either cannot or will not respond out of fear, busyness, or grief. 

Then there are times in which we are attentive to God’s Word and Spirit, seeking to obey – only to mess up and fail at it. It can leave us wondering if God could ever really do anything in or through us.

The truth is this: Love conquers all. Grace overcomes everything. Mercy never fails.

We are here on this earth because of how much the Lord is devoted to us. Even though we often walk the spiritual road in a three-steps-forward-two-steps-backward kind of way, God accommodates to our weakness. 

So, we keep learning the ways of the Lord under the tutelage of God’s Spirit – who patiently and powerfully works within us so that God’s kingdom breaks into this world and God’s will is done on earth as it is in heaven.

Blessed God, I seek not my own will but to fulfill your will in my everyday life. Enable me and strengthen me for this sacred duty and delight, in the power of your Spirit. Amen.

Believe, Love, and Obey (1 John 5:1-12)

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 carrying out 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. For there are three that testify: the Spirit, the water and the blood; and the three agree. We accept human testimony, but God’s testimony is greater because it is the testimony of God, which he has given about his Son. 

Whoever believes in the Son of God accepts this testimony. Whoever does not believe God has made him out to be a liar, because they have not believed the testimony God has given about his Son. And this is the testimony: God has given us eternal life, and this life is in his Son. Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have the Son of God does not have life. (New International Version)

Faith, love, and obedience are words so tightly woven together, that to pull one of them out, is to unravel the whole bunch. 

To believe, love, and obey are the true marks of a Christian; and they are vital to living the Christian life and overcoming the dark forces of the world.

Let’s talk some grammar – because it will help us better understand the Apostle John’s message….

The main verb is the main thing

One of the dominant main verbs throughout these verses: “is.” And the verb tense is key, grammatically describing a past action of God which 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.

The participles describe the main thing

God saves us from sin and grants us forgiveness. The action is from God to us; we are recipients of God’s good grace toward us.

There are three participles connected to the main verb, “is:”

  1. Believe
  2. Love
  3. Obey

A participle is a word which is connected to the verb’s action. 

Our actions are a result of God’s action toward us.

Simply put, 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.

Overcoming the world

In the same way a child must grow and mature to have the necessary skills for facing the world in all its trials and temptations, so the Christian must develop the requisite abilities of faith, love, and obedience, to overcome the world.

To “overcome” is to experience the victory the Lord Jesus has achieved on the cross. 

Through being spiritually born again by God, it sets us on a course requiring faith, love, and obedience in overcoming the world. As we learn to apply these three spiritual characteristics to our lives, we experience practical victory over the world.

The term “world” is used by the Apostle John as the patterns, systems, and operations of the world, which are 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 will be 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 by cutting off their right hand off than being 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 suggests we avoid or belittle the world. In overcoming the world, we must have principled civility. Using faith, love, and obedience, we respect another’s viewpoint through allowing our spirits to grow in faith, expanding our hearts in love, and learning obedience through interaction with others for whom we disagree.

Faith, love, and obedience

We need faith in God:

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 love for God and others:

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 obedience to the call of God:

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 intended, we overcome the world and all its crud; and 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 God – Father, Son, and Spirit – the Lord 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, we hold onto the victory you have accomplished through the cross of Jesus Christ. You have told us not to fear, for you have overcome the world. 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.

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, disorders, family, marriage, children, grandchildren, and friendships.

Loving Lord Jesus, 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. 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.

The Time Is Near (Revelation 22:8-21)

“The Time Is Near, Revelation 22:10-12” by Anthony Falbo, 2019

I, John, am the one who heard and saw these things. And when I had heard and seen them, I fell down to worship at the feet of the angel who had been showing them to me. But he said to me, “Don’t do that! I am a fellow servant with you and with your fellow prophets and with all who keep the words of this scroll. Worship God!”

Then he told me, “Do not seal up the words of the prophecy of this scroll, because the time is near. Let the one who does wrong continue to do wrong; let the vile person continue to be vile; let the one who does right continue to do right; and let the holy person continue to be holy.”

“Look, I am coming soon! My reward is with me, and I will give to each person according to what they have done. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the First and the Last, the Beginning and the End.

“Blessed are those who wash their robes, that they may have the right to the tree of life and may go through the gates into the city. Outside are the dogs, those who practice magic arts, the sexually immoral, the murderers, the idolaters and everyone who loves and practices falsehood.

“I, Jesus, have sent my angel to give you this testimony for the churches. I am the Root and the Offspring of David, and the bright Morning Star.”

The Spirit and the bride say, “Come!” And let the one who hears say, “Come!” Let the one who is thirsty come; and let the one who wishes, take the free gift of the water of life.

I warn everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this scroll: If anyone adds anything to them, God will add to that person the plagues described in this scroll. And if anyone takes words away from this scroll of prophecy, God will take away from that person any share in the tree of life and in the Holy City, which are described in this scroll.

He who testifies to these things says, “Yes, I am coming soon.”

Amen. Come, Lord Jesus.

The grace of the Lord Jesus be with God’s people. Amen. (New International Version)

“St. John the Divine” by David Raber, 2013. The top corners are the Greek letters Alpha and Omega, representing the Beginning and the End; the corresponding letters in Hebrew are at the bottom corners. The Apostle John holds a scroll, a symbol of Christ as the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.

The very last chapter of the big thick Bible let’s us know that the time is near for the end of the world as we know it. Jesus himself tells us that he is coming soon. That might sound weird, considering we are reading Christ’s words two millennia later. There’s nothing soon about 2,000 years in the past. So, how can the time of Christ’s return be “soon?”

Time is viewed differently by God than by us, especially in this modern and/or postmodern era. Whereas we orient ourselves around chronological time by measuring minutes and hours, the Lord is much more event oriented.

Throughout Holy Scripture we have major events of creation, fall, and redemption. Now, there is only one event left on God’s celestial timetable: Christ coming to judge the living and the dead, and the full establishment of a world without any sin or Satan. In that sense, the time is near and very soon.

“Time” itself is really a human yardstick. It’s merely the relationship between events – and we humans like our measurements and metrics. Yet, the Lord is above time. God simultaneously sees the past, present, and future. And when all things are eventually made right, there will be no need for time anymore because all events have run their course.

But how does any of that stuff about time help me in the here-and-now?

We still have time. As long as it is still Today, everyone has the opportunity to change, to do better, to “come” to the eternal wellspring of living water.

None of our lives can ever be reduced to a single event or action. The screw-up or outright sin that we did back there in our lives doesn’t define us. If it did, all of us would be soundly condemned. Instead, it is the habitual offenders, the ones who repeatedly and intentionally do wrong and/or chronically ignore their fellow humanity (and God); it is they who shall be on the outside of a restored Paradise.

So, it’s not too late. The call is out. Jesus himself invites everyone who hears to come.

And since the call is out there, ringing in history for the past two-thousand years, a warning is there for those who either subtract or add to the simple invitation.

Yet no matter the past guilt nor the present moment, grace is the final word. It is, quite literally, the final verse of the Bible.

In a book filled with a vision of end time judgment, it is divine graciousness which has the ultimate and final say. Even with a world under a curse, and with the earth facing judgment, divine blessings abound. The word “blessing” in Scripture simply means to have God’s stamp of approval. Within John’s Apocalypse, we have several instances of blessing:

God blesses (approves) the one who reads the words of this prophecy to the church, and he blesses all who listen to its message and obey what it says, for the time is near. (Revelation 1:3, NLT)

Then I heard a voice from heaven say, “Put this in writing. From now on, the Lord will bless everyone who has faith in him when they die.” The Spirit answered, “Yes, they will rest from their hard work, and they will be rewarded for what they have done.” (Revelation 14:13, CEV)

“Keep watch! I come unannounced, like a thief. You’re blessed if, awake and dressed, you’re ready for me. Too bad if you’re found running through the streets, naked and ashamed.” (Revelation 16:15, MSG)

Then the angel said to me, “Write the following: Blessed are those who are invited to the banquet at the wedding celebration of the Lamb!” He also said to me, “These are the true words of God.” (Revelation 19:9, NET)

Blessed and holy are those who share in the first resurrection. Over these the second death has no power, but they will be priests of God and of Christ, and they will reign with him a thousand years. (Revelation 20:6, NRSV)

“Listen, I am coming soon! Great blessings belong to the one who obeys the words of prophecy in this book.”

Jesus (Revelation 22:7, ERV)

God’s grace allows us to have solidarity with one another as believers throughout the world, no matter the culture, no matter the church or particular Christian tradition.

Grace strengthens us to persevere and labor in hope, no matter the naysayers around us.

Grace gives us courage to face both our present troubles and future uncertainties, no matter the anxiety which fills the earth.

The presence of God is grace. Christ is alive and will come very soon. Be ready, my friends. The time is near.

May you walk in a manner worthy of our spiritual calling and draw near to Christ so you can triumph over the sufferings of this present time.

May you taste and see the goodness of the Lord and be assured of God’s great love for you.

And may the blessing of almighty God – Father, Son, and Spirit – abide with you always. Amen.

A Parable of Two Sons (Matthew 21:28-32)

The Lord of the Parables by Argentine artist Jorge Cocco Santángelo

“What do you think? A man had two sons. Now he came to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work in the vineyard today.’

“‘No, I don’t want to,’ he replied. But later he changed his mind and went.

“The father said the same thing to the other son, who replied, ‘Yes, sir.’ But he didn’t go.

“Which one of these two did his father’s will?”

They said, “The first one.”

Jesus said to them, “I assure you that tax collectors and prostitutes are entering God’s kingdom ahead of you. For John came to you on the righteous road, and you didn’t believe him. But tax collectors and prostitutes believed him. Yet even after you saw this, you didn’t change your hearts and lives and you didn’t believe him. (Common English Bible)

Contemporary persons aren’t the only ones who want to know whose in and whose out; it’s been around forever.

In the ancient world of Jesus, people were always concerned about conformity to the established system and society of the way things are. For religious folk, who gets in and who gets left out was an important issue .So, Jesus decided to tell a parable about entrance into the kingdom of God.

Turns out, there are spiritual insiders on the outside of the kingdom, and spiritual outsiders who are the true inheritors of the kingdom.

The parable, at its core, is a warning to all the spiritually serious insiders: Beware, lest your energies be spent in correctness of behavior, conformity of belonging, and cockiness of belief rather than following Jesus. And, at the same time, the parable encourages spiritually estranged outsiders with the wonderful possibilities of a changed life. 

Far too many people arrogantly assume they have the inside track by what they believe, and not by doing God’s will.

It may be challenging for us to imagine how truly offensive Christ’s story was to the original hearers of the parable, so I restate it in a more contemporary form:

There was a man who was well respected in the community and had two sons. One son grew up and became a respectable member of the community, too. He was a successful businessman and gave lots of money to causes in his community, including new lights for the school football field – which was no small cost. He only asked that appropriate and prominent recognition be given him with a plaque bearing his name on each of the light poles. 

The other son was not so successful. He was the one in school who the teachers said, “Why can’t you be more like your brother?” There was nothing spectacular about this son. In fact, he lived an “alternative lifestyle” and people murmured behind his back. 

The Parable of the Two Sons by Jorge Cocco Santángelo

One day the father said to this son: “Son, go and work at my place of business today; I am going away and need you to do some of the tedious paperwork I have gotten behind on.” “No way!” he answered, but later felt heartsick about the way he spoke to his father and decided to go and do all the grunt work his father needed done.

The father went to the well-respected son and said the same thing about needing him to do all the thankless paperwork that was piled up. That son answered, “Yes, sir, I will; anything you need I will do.” But that son did not go. Instead, he chose to go golfing with some people whom he was trying to coy favor with.

After telling the story, Jesus asked all the upstanding faith leaders and the people listening: “Which of the two did what his father wanted?” “The first,” they answered.

Jesus said, “I tell you the truth, folks with different sexual orientations, unemployed persons on the low rung of society, the religiously different with esoteric beliefs, immigrants from other countries, ex-convicts living in half-way houses, and persons with addictions are all entering the kingdom of God ahead of you.

For you have had heard thousands of sermons about grace and the way of righteousness, yet you did not believe by putting God’s Word into practice; but the others did. And even after you saw how God can change a person’s life from the inside-out, you yourselves did not repent and believe.

It was parables like this that created a religious scandal and eventually got Jesus killed.

The offense for many upstanding citizens is this: that their right doctrine and clean living is not the way of salvation.

Tax collectors and prostitutes were some of the most despised people in Christ’s time. It was simply assumed they were on the outside and would be judged by God.

However, the proof of genuine faith is not lip service but actively obeying God when no one is looking:

My friends, what good is it to say you have faith, when you don’t do anything to show that you really do have faith? Can that kind of faith save you? 

If you know someone who doesn’t have any clothes or food, you shouldn’t just say, “I hope all goes well for you. I hope you will be warm and have plenty to eat.” What good is it to say this, unless you do something to help? 

Faith that doesn’t lead us to do good deeds is all alone and dead!

Suppose someone disagrees and says, “It is possible to have faith without doing kind deeds.” I would answer, “Prove that you have faith without doing kind deeds, and I will prove that I have faith by doing them.” 

You surely believe there is only one God. That’s fine. Even demons believe this, and it makes them shake with fear. (James 2:14-19, CEV)

The Christian life comes down to obedience, not cheap talk. Jesus wants to bless a lost world in need of God’s love and grace.

Jesus Preaching to the Multitude by Jorge Cocco Santángelo

If we have the spiritual ears to listen, we can hear numerous lost souls crying in the dark.

If we have the spiritual eyes to see, we can observe people overwhelmed with life circumstances standing in front of us.

If we have the spiritually strengthened hands willing to labor, we can support needy folks around us who can neither help themselves nor ask for it.

Whenever we take the focus off who is in and who is out, then without judgment and a heart full of compassion, we can address the:

  • Loneliness of so many people living alone and dying alone.
  • Shame which thousands secretly carry every day.
  • Pain of broken bodies, broken hearts, broken spirits, and broken minds experienced by individuals everywhere.

The Lord Jesus feels the loneliness, shame, and pain of people – which is why he told a parable like he did. Christ is looking to activate grace through his people, the church, to a world sinking in the depths of incredible human need.

Christ’s parable, however, is more than a warning; it is a story that flings open the door of mercy for unlikely people seemingly far from God – people who ruined their lives by saying “no” to God. The parable is an invitation for all the screw-ups and those with little faith to come to Jesus.

There is a rather obscure Scripture reference, tucked away in the Old Testament. David was on the outside looking in. King Saul was on the inside trying to capture and kill him, even though David had done nothing wrong. Here is what happened:

David got away and escaped to the Cave of Adullam. When his brothers and others associated with his family heard where he was, they came down and joined him. Not only that, but all who were down on their luck came around—losers and vagrants and misfits of all sorts. David became their leader. There were about four hundred in all. (1 Samuel 22:1-2, MSG)

This rag-tag group of outsiders in Israel became Israel’s insiders as David eventually became king and these were the “mighty men,” the ones who helped bring Israel into prominence. 

Jesus Christ came into this world and identified himself as the Savior to the outsider when he quoted the prophet Isaiah:

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
    because he has anointed me
        to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
    and recovery of sight to the blind,
        to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. Then he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” (Luke 4:18-21, NRSV)

In Christ, there are no lost causes and no persons too far on the outside to be redeemed.

Therefore, now is the time to act on what we believe – to not only affirm right doctrine, but to live out that doctrine in obedience to God’s call. Amen.