Psalm 37:12-22 – Get Some Perspective

Merciless people make plots
against good people
    and snarl like animals,
but the Lord laughs and knows
    their time is coming soon.
The wicked kill with swords
and shoot arrows
to murder
    the poor and the needy
    and all who do right.
But they will be killed
    by their own swords,
    and their arrows
    will be broken.

It is better to live right
and be poor
    than to be sinful and rich.
The wicked will lose all
    of their power,
but the Lord gives strength
    to everyone who is good.

Those who obey the Lord
    are daily in his care,
    and what he has given them
    will be theirs forever.
They won’t be in trouble
    when times are bad,
    and they will have plenty
    when food is scarce.

Wicked people are enemies
    of the Lord
    and will vanish like smoke
    from a field on fire.

An evil person borrows
    and never pays back;
    a good person is generous
    and never stops giving.
Everyone the Lord blesses
    will receive the land;
    everyone the Lord curses
    will be destroyed.
(Contemporary English Version)

The angle from which we view things is really important.

Perspective is everything. 

Whenever some ornery cuss swears at us, or a group of people think the worst of us, or an organization takes advantage of us, we might feel like crumbling underneath the weight of stress.

Throw into the mix the state of world affairs: pandemic, natural disasters, war, poverty, human trafficking, and a legion of unjust victimization and oppression around the globe.

And add our own personal issues, whatever they are, of dealing with mental and physical health, and/or difficult relationships with family, co-workers, or neighbors.

Put it all together and it would be rather easy to believe evil is winning. Can we even begin to make a dent in the wickedness of injustice, abuse, and maltreatment?

When we infuse God to the menacing challenges of our world, it changes everything.

Don’t you know? Haven’t you heard?
    The Lord is the everlasting God,
    the creator of the ends of the earth.
    He doesn’t grow tired or weary.
His understanding is beyond human reach.

Isaiah 40:28, CEB

The vantage of the psalmist is that all this immense malevolent plotting which exists cannot even begin to stand up to the even larger sovereign and benevolent God. 

It’s almost as if the Lord looks down from heaven at wicked people and says, “Well, now, isn’t that something, those tiny little yippee dogs thinking they can take on the big dog!” Truth is, the Lord laughs at the wicked, for God sees that their day is coming – and it won’t be pretty for them. 

Or we might picture some puny bugs on the ground making nefarious plans, completely oblivious to the hugeness of God that towers over them. They are about to be squished but are too busy going about their pathetic business to look up and see what is coming. The bugs are totally powerless in the face of such an awesome presence.

So cut away the thick calluses from your heart and stop being so willfully hardheaded. God, your God, is the God of all gods, he’s the Master of all masters, a God immense and powerful and awesome. He doesn’t play favorites, takes no bribes, makes sure orphans and widows are treated fairly, takes loving care of foreigners by seeing that they get food and clothing. (Deuteronomy 10:17-18, MSG)

We humans who try our best to be good, do right, and live a spiritual life can become much too discouraged, far too easily. 

The remedy to the malady of such disillusionment is to be filled with a robust theology which wisely discerns God as far above all our problems and situations. 

“I am the Lord, the God of all people. Nothing is too difficult for me.”

Jeremiah 32:27, GNT

No matter how ominous the machinations of malicious corruption array against us, the spiritual believer is assured that God is in control, and, in the end, the wicked will get their comeuppance. 

And if we will have the spiritual eyes to see, that fearsome lion who scares the baloney out of us with his loud roar, is really an old toothless cat with no bite. Malicious and malevolent people typically make all kinds of noise and talk a big line, but all they really have is their belligerent bullying and ballyhoo.

No earthly power, no clever person, no loudmouth tormentor, and no human organization can ever go toe to toe with the gargantuan God we serve. 

Put all your circumstances beside this God and see if it changes your perspective.

Mighty God, you bless those who are dedicated to you, and you put down those who rage against you.  Fortify my spirit and let me see just the train of your robe, and I will glimpse the large grandeur of your glory.  Let me know Jesus Christ risen and ascended far above all principalities and powers of this earth.  Amen.

Matthew 5:6 – Blessed are Those Who Hunger and Thirst for Righteousness

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,
    for they will be filled. (New International Version)

Happy are people who are hungry and thirsty for righteousness because they will be fed until they are full. (Common English Bible)

Happy are those whose greatest desire is to do what God requires;
    God will satisfy them fully! (Good News Translation)

They are blessed who hunger and thirst after justice,
    for they will be satisfied. (New Century Version)

God blesses those who hunger and thirst for justice,
    for they will be satisfied. (New Living Translation)

The words “justice” and “righteousness” come from the same word (δικαιοσύνη). The English words are much like two sides to the same coin – one side primarily emphasizing an action, and the other side a relationship.

The word “justice” in Holy Scripture refers to much more than a punitive corrective action toward wrongdoing. That is only a secondary concern for justice. The primary idea is to provide necessities to people without prejudice or favoritism. This is why the Old Testament is filled with references to providing justice to groups of needy or oppressed people such as orphans, widows, foreigners, and the poor:

Do not deprive the foreigner or the fatherless of justice or take the cloak of the widow as a pledge. Remember that you were slaves in Egypt and the Lord your God redeemed you from there. That is why I command you to do this. (Deuteronomy 24:17-18, NIV)

Cursed is anyone who withholds justice from the foreigner, the fatherless or the widow. (Deuteronomy 27:19, NIV)

Good will come to those who are generous and lend freely, who conduct their affairs with justice. (Psalm 112:5, NIV)

I know that the Lord secures justice for the poor and upholds the cause of the needy. (Psalm 140:12, NIV)

Learn to do right; seek justice. Defend the oppressed. Take up the cause of the fatherless; plead the case of the widow. (Isaiah 1:17, NIV)

Woe to those who make unjust laws, to those who issue oppressive decrees, to deprive the poor of their rights and withhold justice from the oppressed of my people, making widows their prey and robbing the fatherless. (Isaiah 10:1-2, NIV)

God is greatly concerned for justice because the Lord is always just in all affairs.

The word “righteousness” primarily has to do with obtaining and maintaining right relationships with God and other people, with the result of doing right actions in the world. Holy Scripture is loaded with references to righteousness. In the Old Testament, justice and righteousness are often coupled together. That’s because justice is to be dispensed with personal relationship – and not detached in an impersonal way.

People do not merely need access to resources – they also require the gift of human connection in obtaining them.

The Lord loves righteousness and justice; the earth is full of his unfailing love. (Psalm 33:5, NIV)

The Lord works righteousness and justice for all the oppressed. (Psalm 103:6, NIV)

Let the one who boasts boast about this: that they have the understanding to know me, that I am the Lord, who exercises kindness, justice and righteousness on earth, for in these I delight,” declares the Lord. (Jeremiah 9:24, NIV)

I will betroth you to me forever; I will betroth you in righteousness and justice, in love and compassion. (Hosea 2:19, NIV)

God hungers and thirsts for righteousness, which is why believers share this same appetite. Being attentive to the entire spectrum of needs that people have – physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual – are what Jesus has in mind when characterizing true disciples.

God specializes in filling broken people and meeting their needs. The picture here is one of a starving person who needs food and drink, or he will die. The person who hungers does not merely view justice and righteousness as options, or something nice to have. Rather, they know that without God’s just action and right relationship, they will die!

People who strongly desire Jesus and his righteousness are easy to spot:

  • Those who are just and right crave and devour God’s Word, so they read and learn Holy Scripture.

Like newborn babies, crave pure spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow up in your salvation, now that you have tasted that the Lord is good. (1 Peter 2:2-3, NIV)

  • Those who are just and right are incessantly chattering about Jesus, so they pursue fellowship with believers and connections with unbelievers.

We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God. God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. (2 Corinthians 5:20-21, NIV)

  • Those who are just and right want to know Christ better, so they pray a lot.

The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective. (James 5:16b, NIV)

  • Those who are just and right desire right relations with others, so they make things right with others.

Godly sorrow brings repentance that leads to salvation and leaves no regret, but worldly sorrow brings death. See what this godly sorrow has produced in you: what earnestness, what eagerness to clear yourselves, what indignation, what alarm, what longing, what concern, what readiness to see justice done. (2 Corinthians 7:10-11, NIV)

Only those who know their poverty of spirit, personally grieve over sin, and are truly humble end up hungering and thirsting for righteousness. This is the recognition that without God, I will not make it. I can neither be justified nor righteous without Jesus.

Grant us, Lord God, a vision of your world as your love would have it: a world where the weak are protected, and none go hungry or poor; a world where the riches of creation are shared, and everyone can enjoy them; a world where different races and cultures live in harmony and mutual respect; a world where peace is built with justice, and justice is guided by love. Give us the inspiration and courage to build it, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

*Above painting by Hyatt Moore

Amos 9:7-15 – A Promise of Restoration

“Are you Israelites more important to me
    than the Ethiopians?” asks the Lord.
“I brought Israel out of Egypt,
    but I also brought the Philistines from Crete
    and led the Arameans out of Kir.

“I, the Sovereign Lord,
    am watching this sinful nation of Israel.
I will destroy it
    from the face of the earth.
But I will never completely destroy the family of Israel,”
    says the Lord.
“For I will give the command
    and will shake Israel along with the other nations
as grain is shaken in a sieve,
    yet not one true kernel will be lost.
But all the sinners will die by the sword—
    all those who say, ‘Nothing bad will happen to us.’

“In that day I will restore the fallen house of David.
    I will repair its damaged walls.
From the ruins I will rebuild it
    and restore its former glory.
And Israel will possess what is left of Edom
    and all the nations I have called to be mine.”
The Lord has spoken,
    and he will do these things.

“The time will come,” says the Lord,
“when the grain and grapes will grow faster
    than they can be harvested.
Then the terraced vineyards on the hills of Israel
    will drip with sweet wine!
I will bring my exiled people of Israel
    back from distant lands,
and they will rebuild their ruined cities
    and live in them again.
They will plant vineyards and gardens;
    they will eat their crops and drink their wine.
I will firmly plant them there
    in their own land.
They will never again be uprooted
    from the land I have given them,”
    says the Lord your God.
(New Living Translation)

Guilt

Doom and hope, judgment and grace, suffering and glory. These are the movements and rhythms of the Old Testament prophets. The great sin of Israel which warranted divine wrath was not only that they trampled on the poor and needy. On top of it all, they saw nothing wrong with their way of life. 

This profound lack of awareness, rooted in the spiritual blindness of greed, is what led to judgment. It would take the form of having the Assyrian Empire come, seize the land, and take the people away to a place where they would have no chance to oppress others. Sadly, death would come to many.

“The work of restoration cannot begin until a problem is fully faced.”

Dan Allender

The sin of oppressing others and believing there’s nothing wrong with it comes with severe consequences. The people relied too much on their ethnicity. The ancient Israelites wrongly assumed that because they were the people of the covenant, this somehow inoculated them from disaster. Their belief in Jewish exceptionalism was their downfall.

Grace

Yet, all would not be an endless gloom. The Lord will not destroy completely. God’s anger lasts for a moment. However, God’s grace lasts forever. Restoration, renewal, and fruitful times will come because of God’s mercy. 

Yes, God pronounces judgment when it is warranted. But God also makes and keeps promises to people. In our lesson for today, the Lord promises to restore the fortunes of the people through rebuilding ruined cities and letting them inhabit them once again.

God steps in and graciously acts on behalf of all people because that is what God does. We might get the notion in our heads that God executes judgment to teach people a lesson or to make a point. In my line of work, it is common to hear people express the idea they are under divine punishment because of personal illness or hard circumstances. 

God, however, acts independently out of a vast storehouse of righteousness and mercy. The Lord maintains holy decrees while showing grace to the undeserving. The nation of Israel, in the days of the prophet Amos, deserved only judgment, not grace. 

It seems to me God would have been completely justified to never restore or renew a recalcitrant people. Yet, God’s grace overwhelms and swallows human sin. Try as you might to understand grace, you will end up befuddled. That’s because grace is wildly illogical, nonsensical, and unconditionally free. Grace shows radical acceptance where there ought to be only the punishing fire of hell.

Gratitude

The height of grace and the pinnacle of restoring the fortunes of Israel (from a Christian perspective) came through a baby and a humble birth in the small village of Bethlehem. Jesus came to save the people from their sins. God acted by entering humanity with divine free love so that there could be new life and fresh hope. 

So, let grace wash you clean. Allow mercy to renew your life. Receive the gift of gracious forgiveness, merciful love, and divine peace. Look ahead and see there is hope on the horizon. Give thanks for God’s indescribable kindness.

Merciful God, although you are careful to uphold your great holiness, your mercy extends from everlasting to everlasting. May the gospel of grace form all my words and actions so that true righteousness reigns in my life through Jesus, my Lord, in the power of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Amos 8:1-7 – A Prophet’s Perspective on the Powerful and the Poor

This is what the Almighty Lord showed me: a basket of ripe summer fruit.

He asked, “What do you see, Amos?”

“A basket of ripe summer fruit,” I answered.

Then the Lord said to me, “My people Israel are now ripe. I will no longer overlook what they have done. On that day, the songs of the temple will become loud cries,” declares the Almighty Lord. “There will be dead bodies scattered everywhere. Hush!”

Listen to this, those who trample on the needy
and ruin those who are oppressed in the world.
You say to yourselves,
“When will the New Moon Festival be over
so that we can sell more grain?
When will the day of rest—a holy day, be over
so that we can sell more wheat?
We can shrink the size of the bushel baskets,
increase the cost,
and cheat with dishonest scales.
We can buy the poor with money
and the needy for a pair of sandals.
We can sell the husks mixed in with the wheat.”

The Lord has sworn an oath by Jacob’s pride:
“I will never forget anything that they have done.” (God’s Word Translation)

I’ve been in the church most of my life. I have listened to thousands of sermons, as well as preaching thousands of them myself. I can count on both hands how many times I’ve heard a sermon from one of the twelve minor prophets in the Bible. Although I personally have preached on them more times than that, it still pales in comparison with how many sermons I’ve preached from the New Testament gospels or epistles.

This, I believe, is an indictment on us, especially those with privilege and power. If you add the major prophets, we have sixteen books contained in Holy Scripture calling out powerful and influential people’s oppression of others. To overlook such a girth of text is to stick our fingers in our ears and refuse to listen to God.

Those with power, position, and privilege must continually be vigilant to use such influence for the benefit of all persons – not just themselves or people just like them. The books of the prophets make it quite plain that God cares about justice. God will uphold the needy. The Lord will stand with the oppressed. If we fail to share a divine sense of justice and injustice, there will be hell to pay.

“Extreme poverty anywhere is a threat to human security everywhere.”

Kofi Annan

God is longsuffering. The Lord patiently awaits us to pay attention. Yet, eventually, that patience will run its course. A prophet will be sent to voice God’s concerns. Like a basket of ripe fruit now finally ready to be eaten, so God’s justice is ripe and ready for action.

The prophet Amos delivered a scathing message to the ancient Israelites about their total disregard for the poor and needy in the land. The people in positions of authority and power only looked on the less fortunate as commodities – as pawns to be taken advantage of for the rich merchants. 

Because the wealthy never took the time to listen to the poor, God would not listen to them. Judgment was coming, and it would not go so well for the power brokers of society who only thought of their business and squeezing others for more money.

The bald fact of the matter is that few people rush to have poor folk as their friends. Those in poverty are often overlooked and disregarded. Either they are ignored altogether or are given hand-outs and services without ever having any significant human contact. Even when there is help, it comes from a distance.

In other words, those in authority rarely take the time to listen and get to know the real face of poverty. If there isn’t a photo opportunity, then encounters with the poor are not likely to happen with politicians, or anyone else. After all, so many are busy making money, checking stock portfolios, and considering how to get bigger market shares…. 

Oh, my, perhaps we have an answer as to why there is no revival in the land. God shows such solidarity with the poor that to ignore them is to ignore him.  No matter our financial picture and outlook, every one of us can grace the poor with the gift of time and listening.  For in doing so we might just be listening to the voice of God.

Gracious God, you are found everywhere – both the halls of power, and the back alleys of slums.  As I seek you more and more, may I see the face of Jesus in everyone I encounter, whether rich or poor so that I can share the gift of life with them all.  Amen.