Isaiah 9:18-10:4 – The Reality in Front of Us

Surely wickedness burns like a fire;
    it consumes briers and thorns,
it sets the forest thickets ablaze,
    so that it rolls upward in a column of smoke.
By the wrath of the Lord Almighty
    the land will be scorched
and the people will be fuel for the fire;
    they will not spare one another.
On the right they will devour,
    but still be hungry;
on the left they will eat,
    but not be satisfied.
Each will feed on the flesh of their own offspring:
    Manasseh will feed on Ephraim, and Ephraim on Manasseh;
    together they will turn against Judah.

Yet for all this, his anger is not turned away,
    his hand is still upraised.

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.
What will you do on the day of reckoning,
    when disaster comes from afar?
To whom will you run for help?
    Where will you leave your riches?
Nothing will remain but to cringe among the captives
    or fall among the slain.

Yet for all this, his anger is not turned away,
    his hand is still upraised. (New International Version)

There are times when God has some very hard things to say.

The Lord does get angry. And that’s a good thing.

The Love/Anger Reality of God

God’s anger and wrath are a form of God’s love. A heartless unloving god is fickle and unconcerned for much of the evil which happens in the world. Conversely, a loving God is not okay with wicked persons having their way. A loving God’s anger is kindled against injustice. A loving God doesn’t long put up with people oppressing other people, and taking advantage of them.

So, this is what the Old Testament prophets are all about – communicating and calling people to change their ways because they are harming others. And when the harming and the hurting is done purposefully and callously, then the ire of a holy God is raised. The Lord will not contend with this sort of attitude and action.

The language of judgment, in today’s Old Testament prophetic lesson, is an invitation for us to take a very hard look at the reality which was responsible for such an angry response from God.

The Social/Economic Reality of Both the Prophet’s World and Today’s World

God expects justice, to have people helping one another thrive and flourish in this life, to be concerned for the common good of all persons, not just some. In Isaiah’s day, all that God saw was greed and selfishness, injustice and corruption. And God was not okay with it. The unjust systems and practices were a failure of the people to live up to the Lord’s expectations for righteous living.

Sadly, issues of justice and righteousness are still relevant in our world today. Throughout the earth, this very day, the powerless are being exploited; the rich get wealthier at the cost of the poor; greed, corruption, outsourcing, and unjust legal systems are the norm and not the exception.

Much of the world gloomily faces racism, poverty, gender injustice, violence, famine, health disparities and inequities. And so called “religious” folk are at the forefront of ensuring that these evils continue to persist. So, why would not a holy God become infuriated at such a situation!?

A 12th century German depiction of Isaiah the prophet

The Religious Reality of Isaiah’s Day and Our Day

The religious reality of Isaiah’s day is not so far off from our own today. People were, and are, engaging in forms of spiritual and/or religious activity while being completely devoid of justice. Folks attend religious gatherings and believe in God – and treat others unjustly. They talk of faith in the Lord, while trusting in wealth and assets.

It was, and is, a world where people bow before their own works and ingenuity, focusing their attention on money and power. It’s a world with no room for the God of the Bible and true divine justice.

Far too many “believers” espouse unethical leaders and turn a blind eye to morally bankrupt leadership. Far too many religious folk want what they want, with no regard for the needs of others.

The Divine Reality of God’s Pathos

We as people need to contend with a God who is a profoundly emotional Being.

God is moved and affected by what happens in the world. The Lord’s anger and judgment is aroused because of God’s love and compassion.

God both binds up the injuries of people, as well as inflicts wounds. This ought not be surprising. After all, we readily understand, through our extensive healthcare systems, that medical interventions and surgeries are needed, and that they hurt.

A God of justice is, of course, angered by ethical violations. The Lord is rightly upset that the world often falls so woefully short of instituting a just social, economic, and political order for all citizens to enjoy.

Everyone must deal with the God who is not a brain-on-a-stick but has a deep heart for people everywhere to experience truth, justice, righteousness, salvation, and love.

Conclusion

Yes, there is a coming reality in which a new world will emerge. For the Christian, this occurs when Christ returns to judge the living and the dead. Complete deliverance from sin, death, and hell shall be realized.

But we aren’t there yet. We still need to cope with the world as it is today, and deal with it’s failures, shortcomings, and sins.

There is currently a massive need to be attentive to the needy, to proclaim the gospel to all nations, and to be involved in reforming unjust systems in our cities, communities, and countries. Salvation is meant for the whole person, not just the spiritual part.

Therefore, we have a choice as to how we will approach the world.

Will we withdraw from it? Will we engage it, only to take advantage of others within it? Or will we participate with God in transforming it?

  • Will we hear the cries of the oppressed?
  • Will we live out God’s commitment to the poor, the weak, and the sick?
  • Will we work for economic and social equity?
  • Will we break the bonds of injustice?
  • Will we help people to reach their full potential?
  • Will we preach good news?
  • Will we suffer with those who suffer and show solidarity with the weak?
  • Will we be truly spiritual folk who invest in the concerns of humanity?
  • Will we take up our cross and follow the Lord in being suffering servants for a lost world in need of God and God’s justice?

The reality in front of us is one which demands confrontation, participation, and reformation. Will you do it?

Blessed and holy God and Father of all, it is your will that all people be gathered together as one family in yourself. Fill the hearts of humanity with the fire of your love and with the desire to ensure justice for all. By sharing the good gifts that you give us, may we secure an equality for all our brothers and sisters throughout the world. May there be an end to division, strife and war. May there be a dawning of a just society built on love and peace. We ask this in the name of Jesus, our Lord. Amen.

Psalm 52 – Deliver Us From Evil

The world’s oldest olive tree, 3,000 years, on the island of Crete

Hey, powerful person!
    Why do you brag about evil?
    God’s faithful love lasts all day long.
Your tongue devises destruction:
    it’s like a sharpened razor, causing deception.
You love evil more than good;
    you love lying more than speaking what is right.
You love all destructive words;
    you love the deceiving tongue.

But God will take you down permanently;
    he will snatch you up,
    tear you out of your tent,
    and uproot you from the land of the living!
The righteous will see and be in awe;
    they will laugh at those people:
“Look at them! They didn’t make God their refuge.
    Instead, they trusted in their own great wealth.
        They sought refuge in it—to their own destruction!”

But I am like a green olive tree in God’s house;
    I trust in God’s faithful love forever and always.
I will give thanks to you, God, forever,
    because you have acted.
In the presence of your faithful people,
    I will hope in your name because it’s so good. (Common English Bible)

Ideally, every person on planet earth would be safe to talk to and work with. But we know this is not true. That’s because we have our own experiences of persons in authority who used their power and influence for malevolent purposes – knowing exactly what kind of harm they’re doing.

This is precisely what once happened with David. Before he was king over all Israel and Judah, David was on the run from King Saul.

David had done nothing wrong. In fact, he had done everything right from a good heart. And yet, because of Saul’s jealousy and lust for power, he saw David as a threat and not an asset. So, he hunted him like an animal.

King Saul’s abuse of power was bad enough. But that abuse reached it’s evil height with Doeg the Edomite. (1 Samuel 22:6-23)

Doeg was a nasty guy. He wasn’t just bad; he enjoyed being bad. Saul was so obsessed with getting rid of his perceived rival, that he sought to kill anyone who aided and abetted David. And Doeg had such a lust for murder that he was willing to kill anyone.

And that’s what he did. When Saul found out that the priests in the village of Nob had helped David when he was on the run, the jealous king tried to use his authority to command the army to slaughter them all. However, being reasonable men, they could not do it.

Yet, Doeg stepped in and stepped up to single-handedly wipe out the priests. Sadly, he didn’t stop there…

Doeg the Edomite turned and attacked the priests; on that day he killed eighty-five who wore the linen ephod. Nob, the city of the priests, he put to the sword; men and women, children and infants, oxen, donkeys, and sheep, he put to the sword. (1 Samuel 22:18-19, NRSV)

It was after this horrific event that David crafted the psalm for today.

There is abuse, trauma, and oppression – and then there is the continual harming from another which goes unabated. The abuser, the oppressor, the murderer keeps going, unchecked. And we are powerless to stop it.

There is only One who can right such terrible wrongs.

Today’s psalm speaks of God’s constancy, the continual love which persists all day long. David lifted his grief and anger to the Lord concerning the misuse of power and authority by Saul and Doeg. In light of God’s justice and faithful love, David affirms and believes that the Lord will bring ruin on those who despise divine commands and ethical instruction.

We don’t know always know why evil continues, or how it will end. Those enduring questions out of our own human condition and experience of evil may persist. Yet, the believer knows with certainty, as follower of a righteous, just, and holy God, that the downfall of the wicked will be total, and it will be permanent.

There is a day coming when evil shall be finished forever. And it’s hard not knowing exactly when that’s going to happen.

Perhaps this sort of talk seems like a cop out. It may appear that if God is so loving and powerful that evil ought to be stopped this very second.

Yet, consider this: There is so much evil and injustice in this world that to forcefully and immediately pull up those nasty wicked weeds will end up taking out the good plants next to them. The cure ends up being the harm.

The Lord is presently, patiently, and meticulously moving all things toward an inexorable ending – and it must be done carefully so that the godly are preserved from annihilation.

Fortunately, most people on earth aren’t like Doeg the Edomite or King Saul. Unfortunately, having one of them in your life is likely to happen because of the world’s great evil. One wicked person is bad enough to foment hate, spread lies, create havoc, and outright murder people – both verbally and actually.

The biblical psalms exist to serve us well whenever we experience the wrath of a person like Doeg. The psalms let us know we aren’t alone and help give us a voice. This is highly important, especially when the wicked seek to silence us and squelch our voice.

Trusting in the Lord, day after day… week after week… month after month… year after year… decade after decade… with the same slow and deliberate plod of God, strengthens us like a big old thick olive tree. And the psalms are here to help that happen.

May the Lord Jesus Christ guard and deliver you from the snares of the devil, the assaults of evil spirits, the wrath of the wicked, all base passions, and the fear of the known and unknown. Amen.

Psalm 82 – Help Others, Without Prejudice

“The Thankful Poor” by Henry Ossawa Tanner, 1894

God takes his place in his own assembly.
He pronounces judgment among the gods:
“How long are you going to judge unfairly?
How long are you going to side with wicked people?”

Defend weak people and orphans.
Protect the rights of the oppressed and the poor.
Rescue weak and needy people.
Help them escape the power of wicked people.

Wicked people do not know or understand anything.
As they walk around in the dark,
all the foundations of the earth shake.
I said, “You are gods.
You are all sons of the Most High.
You will certainly die like humans
and fall like any prince.”

Arise, O God!
Judge the earth, because all the nations belong to you. (God’s Word Translation)

“My dear friends, pay attention. God has given a lot of faith to the poor people in this world. He has also promised them a share in his kingdom that he will give to everyone who loves him.”

James 2:5, CEV

God’s mercy and grace is what makes the world go round. God’s attention to people who possess little to nothing is what upholds the earth from being consumed with judgment.

An absence of grace in people is offensive to God. An uncharitable spirit, indifferent to those in need, will eventually face the crushing weight of God’s glory upon them.

The psalmist is uncompromisingly clear on divine imperatives for humanity: defend the weak; protect the rights of the poor; rescue the needy; and deliver them from unjust power. That’s what God does. And that is what we are to do, without prejudice.

When I was growing up, our family dog was named “Sam.” Sam loved being on the farm. One time he tussled with a skunk. I could barely get close enough to clean him up because he stunk so badly. 

Favoritism toward those with means over those who don’t, stinks, and God has a hard time getting close to us when we show partiality to others. And the Lord is going to clean us up when he smells the stench of discrimination on us. 

Showing favoritism to some over others is evidence that the dog is running away from the bath of grace. In order to develop relationships and interact with people the way God wants us to, we must be free from prejudice.

No matter how you slice the Bible, God cares about persons trapped in poverty. The poor are important to the Lord. 

When Jesus began his earthly ministry, he pointed people to the words of the prophet Isaiah.

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has chosen me to bring good news to the poor.” (Isaiah 61:1; Luke 4:18) 

In the Old Testament, there are seven different words for the “poor” because poverty was such a pervasive reality (and still is across the world!). The range of meanings includes those who are poor because of laziness; those born into poverty; being poor because of inhuman oppression or slavery; simple beggars; and the pious humble poor. 

These spiritual poor persons are the Hebrew “anawim.” (pronounced “on-a-wheem”) The anawim are humble persons caught in grinding poverty, having no choice but to put their trust in God.

God has a lot to say about such persons because they are near and dear to the divine heart. Old Testament law was quite clear about how to treat the poor. 

Poor persons will never disappear from the earth. That’s why I’m giving you this command: you must open your hand generously to your fellow Israelites, to the needy among you, and to the poor who live with you in your land. (Deuteronomy 15:11, CEB)

Do not cheat poor and needy hired servants, whether they are Israelites or foreigners living in one of your towns. Each day before sunset pay them for that day’s work; they need the money and have counted on getting it. If you do not pay them, they will cry out against you to the Lord, and you will be guilty of sin. (Deuteronomy 24:14-15, GNT) 

The mistreatment, exploitation, and inattention to the poor, the anawim, was the chief reason God sent prophets to Israel. 

Listen to this, you who rob the poor
    and trample down the needy!
You can’t wait for the Sabbath day to be over
    and the religious festivals to end
    so you can get back to cheating the helpless.
You measure out grain with dishonest measures
    and cheat the buyer with dishonest scales.
And you mix the grain you sell
    with chaff swept from the floor.
Then you enslave poor people
    for one piece of silver or a pair of sandals.

Now the Lord has sworn this oath
    by his own name, the Pride of Israel:
“I will never forget
    the wicked things you have done! (Amos 8:4-7, NLT)

Instead of being generous to the poor and allowing them to forage for grain at harvest behind the harvesters, they kept “those people” away from the fields so that they could turn a profit at every little bit they could. And God thought it all stunk to high heaven.

Bear in mind, only the poor in spirit will enter the kingdom of heaven. The real issue is humility that demonstrates grace to people who cannot offer you something in return. 

It’s easy to be merciful to people who will turn around later and scratch your back. It’s altogether a different thing to be humble, gracious, and generous to those you know cannot give anything back to you.

God cares about the condition of our souls and not the balance of our bank accounts. 

Inattention to the needy only betrays a heart far from the Lord. God does not judge people on face value and the state of their finances, and neither should we.

The only way to rid ourselves of the stench of showing favoritism is to receive the cleansing bath of God’s mercy in Jesus Christ. The shampoo of grace is available, that is, if we will let God apply it. God is the expert in:

  • Turning people from only associating with those they are comfortable with, to lovingly reaching out to people very different from themselves
  • Changing people from the stinking thinking about what they can continually obtain and consume, to people who are loving and generous with their words and their physical resources
  • Putting to death a proud spirit that looks to get ahead and accomplish an agenda by any means possible, to giving new life through humble repentance.

Ministry to the poor is a non-negotiable for the Christian and Christ’s Church. 

Beyond mere dispensing of benevolent funds, the poor also need relationships, connections, resources, and a chance to give back in ways they can contribute. That’s just part of being attentive to them and extending basic human respect and dignity. 

How do you or your church show their concern for the poor in your city and/or region?

Almighty and most merciful God, we remember before you all the poor and neglected persons whom it would be easy for us to forget: the homeless and the destitute, the old and the sick, and all who have none to care for them. Help us to heal those who are broken in body or spirit, and to turn their sorrow into joy. Grant this, gracious Father, for the love of your Son, who for our sake became poor, Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Amos 2:4-11 – Pay Attention to the Poor

The Poor and Money by Vincent van Gogh, 1882

This is what the Lord says:

“For three sins of Judah,
    even for four, I will not relent.
Because they have rejected the law of the Lord
    and have not kept his decrees,
because they have been led astray by false gods,
    the gods their ancestors followed,
I will send fire on Judah
    that will consume the fortresses of Jerusalem.”

This is what the Lord says:

“For three sins of Israel,
    even for four, I will not relent.
They sell the innocent for silver,
    and the needy for a pair of sandals.
They trample on the heads of the poor
    as on the dust of the ground
    and deny justice to the oppressed.
Father and son use the same girl
    and so profane my holy name.
They lie down beside every altar
    on garments taken in pledge.
In the house of their god
    they drink wine taken as fines.

“Yet I destroyed the Amorites before them,
    though they were tall as the cedars
    and strong as the oaks.
I destroyed their fruit above
    and their roots below.
I brought you up out of Egypt
    and led you forty years in the wilderness
    to give you the land of the Amorites.

“I also raised up prophets from among your children
    and Nazirites from among your youths.
Is this not true, people of Israel?”
declares the Lord. (New International Version)

It’s not a sin to be poor. It is a sin to oppress, take advantage of, or exploit the poor.

Social justice isn’t something fabricated in the minds of progressive Christians. Social justice is biblical and at the heart of all sixteen prophetic books of Holy Scripture’s Old Testament.

The reason the prophets address poverty so often is that God hates injustice. God is not okay with an entire group of disadvantaged people having needed resources beyond arm’s reach – and the Lord’s ire is especially roused whenever the wealthy and powerful extort what little the poor have to begin with.

Even if there are some who tend to believe the poor are poor because of laziness or an unwillingness to work hard, you will not find that idea amongst the biblical prophets. You will, in fact, find just the opposite: fat cats who lie around with their privileged lives, not lifting a finger to help the underprivileged.

The Church does have a role in combating systemic oppression of the poor and needy, and the prophet Amos wants those who claim the name of the Lord to know it.

Amos not only harangued the nations who surrounded Israel and Judah of their sinful stances toward the poor, he leveled the very same message at God’s people who did the same things. Although the Israelites enjoyed a special status with God, that did not mean the Lord had a different set of values or expectations for them when it came to basic human justice.

Mistreating one another is a universal sin and all nations everywhere will be held accountable by God for how they treat the least persons among them. There is such a thing as universal human rights – and the godly person will care about this, at the least, because God cares.

Amos almost exclusively hones-in on the economic sins of the wealthy: taking away needed clothing from those who default on loans; assessing unnecessary and exorbitant fines; taking levies of grain; and living a lavish lifestyle on the backs of the less fortunate.

It was these continually repeated sins against one another which eventually led to both Israel and Judah being conquered by pagan nations and carried into exile.

Today, you will still easily find people being used by others, as if they were mere inhuman machines, here on this earth to make money for those who already have plenty of it. They’d sell their own grandmother if they could get a good price on her. Extortion and oppression are like eating and drinking to them.

Yet, such persons, groups, even entire governments are only stockpiling judgment upon themselves for the God whom they must eventually give an account in how they lived their lives on this earth.

Instead, intentionally paying attention to the poor and treating them with equity will involve the following:

  1. Donating to charitable causes, such as church denominational relief funds, and respected international organizations who can make your contributions count.
  2. Agitating politicians for better policies toward the poor. Writing letters, sending emails, and making phone calls are simple ways of letting your voice be heard in a democratic society.
  3. Learning about worldwide and local poverty. It’s hard not to be involved whenever there is pertinent information. Putting names and faces to struggling people is a must, as well as understanding some of the dynamics that go into poverty.
  4. Raising awareness of significant issues related to poverty and how it impacts the poor. Find others who care about this and share insights and understanding about how to educate others.
  5. Volunteering at a local organization who works with the poor.

There are many more ways to make a difference. As biblically informed people, care of the poor and being concerned for issues of poverty is a must, because the Lord is a Just God with a heart of justice for the disadvantaged, underprivileged, and needy among us.

Now if there are some poor persons among you, say one of your fellow Israelites in one of your cities in the land that the Lord your God is giving you, don’t be hard-hearted or tightfisted toward your poor fellow Israelites. To the contrary! Open your hand wide to them. You must generously lend them whatever they need. (Deuteronomy 15:7-8, CEB)

Just and merciful God, you give honor to the least, the forgotten, the overlooked, and the misjudged.

You give first place to the last, the left behind, the misunderstood, and the undervalued.

You give a warm welcome to the lost, the orphaned, the abandoned, and the destitute.

Help us, your people, to be your ears in listening to their cries.

Help us to be your voice speaking words of encouragement, affirmation, and acceptance.

Help us to be your feet walking beside those in need; and your hands to clothe, feed and shelter them.

You came for the least, the lost and last of this world. Lord, in your mercy, hear our prayer. Amen.