I Was (Not) Glad When They Said, “Let’s Go to Best Buy” (Psalm 122)

I was glad when they said to me,
    “Let us go to the Lord’s house.”
And now we are here,
    standing inside the gates of Jerusalem!

Jerusalem is a city restored
    in beautiful order and harmony.
This is where the tribes come,
    the tribes of Israel,
to give thanks to the Lord
    according to his command.
Here the kings of Israel
    sat to judge their people.

Pray for the peace of Jerusalem:
    “May those who love you prosper.
    May there be peace inside your walls
    and safety in your palaces.”
For the sake of my relatives and friends
    I say to Jerusalem, “Peace be with you!”
For the sake of the house of the Lord our God
    I pray for your prosperity. (Good News Translation)

I am confident, on this Black Friday, that the vast majority of Americans are on a different pilgrimage than the type described by David. They’re singing an alternative song and reading a secular psalm:

When they said, “Let’s go to Best Buy,”
    my heart leaped for joy.
And now we’re here, O Circuit City,
    inside the walls of electronic heaven!

The gaming systems! The glorious computer firewalls,
    all built as a place for unceasing worship!
Sin City, er, I mean Sim City, to which the gamers ascend,
    allows us to build a New Jerusalem in our own image.

Give thanks to all the Skylines and Rimworlds—
   
 this is what it means to be master of a small world.
Game of Thrones is the righteous judgment in my petty kingdom,
    a Kingdom at War with me as sovereign.

Pray for the peace of Wal-Mart!
    Prosperity to all you Target-lovers!
Friendly insiders, get along!
    Hostile outsiders, keep your distance!

For the sake of my family and friends,
    I say it again: live in peace, once I conquer you all!
For the sake of Amazon sales,
    I’ll do my very best to land the best deal on this holy Black Friday.

It’s not my purpose to try and be a prude (but I’m clearly not above doing some parody!) I just like how my spiritual forebears have chosen to mark time, events, and seasons – instead of how corporate and secular America chooses to. And I’m convinced I have a better life because of it.

As for me, I’ll stick with the ancient and historic way of pilgrimage, not the secular liturgy of Black Friday, Cyber Monday, etc. I’m going to sojourn through the year, as I do every year, marking my calendar with the rhythms of Christ’s incarnation, life, ministry, death, resurrection, ascension, and glorification.

We have now entered the new Christian liturgical year. Whereas most of Western society is holding to all sorts of holidays, mostly centering around a market economy and past political events, I’m choosing to build my year around the person and work of Jesus Christ.

If you’d like to participate in the movement of seasons and events along with me, then this is what we will be observing in this next liturgical year:

Advent (November 27–December 24, 2022)

Nativity of the Lord, Christmas Eve: December 24

The Christian Year begins not on January 1, but four Sundays before Christmas Day and up to Christmas Eve.  The purpose of Advent is to anticipate Christ’s incarnation and prepare Christians to celebrate the coming of Jesus. We are also reminded during the season of Advent that Jesus will return again at the end of the age.

Christmas (December 25, 2022–January 5, 2023)

Christmas Day: December 25

Yes, Christmas is more than just a day on the Church Calendar and encompasses the “12 Days of Christmas”.  Christmas is a full twelve days of celebrating the birth of Christ.

Epiphany (January 6–February 21, 2023)

Epiphany of the Lord: January 6

Baptism of the Lord: January 8

Transfiguration of the Lord: February 19

Epiphany follows Christmas up to the day before Ash Wednesday. The term Epiphany means “manifestation.”  This is a celebration of God’s revelation, his manifestation to the entire world, not just to the Jews, but to the Gentiles, as well. Epiphany emphasizes Jesus Christ’s earthly ministry of teaching, healing, and preaching.

Lent (February 22–April 8, 2023)

Ash Wednesday: February 22

Holy Week: April 2-8

Palm Sunday: April 2

Maundy Thursday: April 6

Good Friday: April 7

There are forty days (not including Sundays) in the season of Lent, from Ash Wednesday to Holy Saturday. Lent is a time to recall Christ’s temptation, conflict, suffering, and death. It is a season to contemplate Christian discipleship through the light of Christ’s Passion, engage in repentance, and put deliberate focus on spiritual disciplines that connect the penitent with Jesus.

Easter (April 9–May 27, 2023)

Resurrection of the Lord, Easter Sunday: April 9

Ascension of the Lord: May 18

As with Christmas, Easter is not just one Sunday; it is a season of fifty days up to the day of Pentecost. Easter, or “Eastertide,” celebrates the resurrection of Jesus; helps believers recognize new life in Christ; and includes celebrating the Ascension of the Lord.

Pentecost (May 28–December 2, 2023)

Day of Pentecost: May 28

Trinity Sunday: June 4

This season runs from Eastertide to the Sunday before Advent. Pentecost celebrates the gift of the Holy Spirit, the birth of the church, acknowledges personal and communal spiritual power, and calls Christians to rejoice in receiving God’s power.

Ordinary Time (May 28–December 2, 2023)

All Saints Day: November 1

Christ the King Sunday: November 26

This is the same season as Pentecost. Ordinary time (also known as Proper Time) refers to the ongoing work of the church to spread the gospel of Jesus Christ, which is the typical, expected, proper and ordinary work of ministry that Christ’s followers are to do.

Everybody likes a good deal, which is why everyone ought to love the good news of grace and forgiveness. It’s free but not cheap, and wildly generous while being, at the same time, costly, but definitely worth it.

Journeying with Jesus throughout the Christian Year helps us to receive the gospel of grace, especially when our post-holiday budget begins judging us.

Take the Path of Peace (Zechariah 1:1-17)

Michelangelo’s depiction of the prophet Zechariah, Sistine Chapel, Rome

In the eighth month of the second year of Darius, the word of the Lord came to the prophet Zechariah son of Berekiah, the son of Iddo:

“The Lord was very angry with your ancestors. Therefore tell the people: This is what the Lord Almighty says: ‘Return to me,’ declares the Lord Almighty, ‘and I will return to you,’ says the Lord Almighty. Do not be like your ancestors, to whom the earlier prophets proclaimed: This is what the Lord Almighty says: ‘Turn from your evil ways and your evil practices.’ But they would not listen or pay attention to me, declares the Lord. Where are your ancestors now? And the prophets, do they live forever? But did not my words and my decrees, which I commanded my servants the prophets, overtake your ancestors?

“Then they repented and said, ‘The Lord Almighty has done to us what our ways and practices deserve, just as he determined to do.’”

On the twenty-fourth day of the eleventh month, the month of Shebat, in the second year of Darius, the word of the Lord came to the prophet Zechariah son of Berekiah, the son of Iddo.

During the night I had a vision, and there before me was a man mounted on a red horse. He was standing among the myrtle trees in a ravine. Behind him were red, brown and white horses.

I asked, “What are these, my lord?”

The angel who was talking with me answered, “I will show you what they are.”

Then the man standing among the myrtle trees explained, “They are the ones the Lord has sent to go throughout the earth.”

And they reported to the angel of the Lord who was standing among the myrtle trees, “We have gone throughout the earth and found the whole world at rest and in peace.”

Then the angel of the Lord said, “Lord Almighty, how long will you withhold mercy from Jerusalem and from the towns of Judah, which you have been angry with these seventy years?” So the Lord spoke kind and comforting words to the angel who talked with me.

Then the angel who was speaking to me said, “Proclaim this word: This is what the Lord Almighty says: ‘I am very jealous for Jerusalem and Zion, and I am very angry with the nations that feel secure. I was only a little angry, but they went too far with the punishment.’

“Therefore this is what the Lord says: ‘I will return to Jerusalem with mercy, and there my house will be rebuilt. And the measuring line will be stretched out over Jerusalem,’ declares the Lord Almighty.

“Proclaim further: This is what the Lord Almighty says: ‘My towns will again overflow with prosperity, and the Lord will again comfort Zion and choose Jerusalem.’” (New International Version)

God hulking-out isn’t something you want to see repeated, insisted the prophet.

Zechariah directed his message to the Jews returning from their exile in Babylon. He reminded them that their parents and forebears had been called to repent and return to the Lord. They didn’t. Hence, the Babylonian exile. Big hint from the prophet to the people: Don’t ever do that again. Things will get angry, large, and green if you do.

Zechariah’s generation was being given a chance: To live into God’s covenant and law; to hold fast onto their identity as God’s people.

The people listened to the prophet. They expressed their repentance and a desire to turn from past evil ways and embrace the ways of the Lord. And the returning exiles also acknowledged and accepted God’s judgment. The returning exiles understood that, as a people, they deserve the consequences to centuries of neglecting justice, mercy, and humility.

Every generation of believers must learn from the past. Not only do they need to receive the teachings and traditions of those who went before them, but each generation must also struggle with how to put that teaching and tradition into practice.

The past needs to be squarely faced and deliberately pulled into the present. That is the way a genuine hope is born, giving direction for the future. In other words, old words and ways from the past need new experiences in the present; only by doing this will there be guidance.

Bring in your kingdom so that your will is done on earth as it’s done in heaven. (Matthew 6:10, CEB)

Today’s Old Testament lesson includes the first of eight night visions from the prophet Zechariah. The gist of the first prophetic oracle is a message of assurance and comfort: God will restore. The Lord will renew.

Divine intervention is about to happen in the rebuilding of the temple – a physical example of the spiritual reality that is happening. Just as the ancient temple was being restored for new generations of worshipers, so the people were being renewed to be an example of piety and fidelity to God for millennia to come.

Peace and prosperity will again be realized.

Throughout Scripture, trees are a symbol of a thriving and flourishing life. The myrtle tree is a sign of God’s promise to bring new life, branching out to spread into the next generations. Like all trees, the myrtle needs plenty of moisture when young. Yet, it is distinctive in that the myrtle tree can tolerate drought, grow despite limited soil, and remain hardy when it becomes mature.

Your anger lasts a little while,
but your kindness lasts
    for a lifetime.
At night we may cry,
but when morning comes
    we will celebrate. (Psalm 30:5, CEV)

“Tolerate,” “grow,” and “remain” are anything but passive words. People are more than mere observers. “Repent” and “return” and “renew” are verbs. There is a great deal of activity to do. A divine/human cooperation needs to occur. On God’s end, even the angels get involved in the action. What’s happening here is both heavenly and earthly business.

Relational dynamics between God and God’s people are to be a dialogue and not a one-sided monologue. The Lord and the present generation are to demonstrate for future peoples how peace is actually realized and enjoyed.

The Vision of Zechariah, by Unknown artist, c.1300 C.E., Sicily

Like all biblical visions, Zechariah’s is not readily understandable. Nobody is sure about what the symbolism is behind the vision’s horses. Yet, I’ll venture to say that it’s the colors which are significant: red is the color of action; brown is a color of stability and fertility; and white represents purity and holiness. Red, brown, and white mixed together creates a beige color.

Beige is an earthy and dependable color. It’s an inherently welcoming and calming color, offering warmth and symbolizing harmony and comfort. Together, with the horses we have a representation of strength, stability, and structure. They are signs of peace and rest, of God’s shalom.

Spiritual wholeness, moral integrity, relational harmony, and settled peace don’t just magically happen. 

For the Christian, peace was bought at a price – the blood of Jesus. (Colossians 1:20)

Peace must be both passively received and actively pursued. (Ephesians 4:3)

Practices of peace need to be engrafted into our lives so that we might daily experience it. (Romans 14:13-15:7)

The name “Zechariah” is a Hebrew word meaning, “God remembered.” God has not forgotten divine promises. 

The time has come to take hold of the vision God had from the very beginning to walk with humanity in continual fellowship and happiness in the garden, a place of abundant growth, beauty, and health – a place of peace and rest.

The happiest, fully rested, and most peaceful people and nations on earth continually find a steady stream of joy in their families, their rituals/traditions, and their religion.

To find joy and happiness in life is to find peace and rest. And peace is something to be shared, to be passed onto others.

“The peace of Christ be with you.”

“And also with you.”

Such ritual words and practices are reminders of continually returning to the Lord and finding simplicity and satisfaction in Jesus.

In observing and celebrating the Lord’s Table, we find our penultimate remembrance of how peace was achieved, as well as our supreme participation in the triune God.

Perhaps, then, peace and prosperity will extend their tree-like branches over the earth and into the next generations.

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

Peace before us,
Peace behind us,
Peace under our feet.

Peace within us,
Peace over us,
Let all around us be peace.

Christ before us,
Christ behind us,
Christ under our feet.

Christ within us,
Christ over us,
Let all around us be Christ. – a Navajo Prayer

1 Timothy 1:1-11 – A Plea for Grace and Truth

From Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by order of God our Savior and Christ Jesus our hope—

To Timothy, my true son in the faith:

May God the Father and Christ Jesus our Lord give you grace, mercy, and peace.

I want you to stay in Ephesus, just as I urged you when I was on my way to Macedonia. Some people there are teaching false doctrines, and you must order them to stop. Tell them to give up those legends and those long lists of ancestors, which only produce arguments; they do not serve God’s plan, which is known by faith. 

The purpose of this order is to arouse the love that comes from a pure heart, a clear conscience, and a genuine faith. Some people have turned away from these and have lost their way in foolish discussions. They want to be teachers of God’s law, but they do not understand their own words or the matters about which they speak with so much confidence.

We know that the Law is good if it is used as it should be used. It must be remembered, of course, that laws are made, not for good people, but for lawbreakers and criminals, for the godless and sinful, for those who are not religious or spiritual, for those who kill their fathers or mothers, for murderers, for the immoral, for sexual perverts, for kidnappers, for those who lie and give false testimony or who do anything else contrary to sound doctrine. That teaching is found in the gospel that was entrusted to me to announce, the Good News from the glorious and blessed God. (Good News Translation)

We all need to be continually reminded of the supreme, overarching, and divine imperative of love. Love God and love neighbor is the summation of all other commands in Holy Scripture.

Whenever we lose sight of love as the guiding ethic of law, we stray into foolish discussions which are always unhelpful, and oftentimes harmful. As a result, there is today a plethora of shortsighted and small-hearted pundits who don’t even understand their own speech.

The irony is that those who rail against particular sins are themselves the most egregious sinners of all; and the ones calling for observance of Christian ethics are themselves acting unethically.

While there a large chunks of the Christian world who condemn same sex relations because “the Bible says it is sin,” they never question the translation of what they’re reading in Scripture – failing to realize that the original scriptures were not authorized by King James to be written in English.

Translation is no easy task. Believe me, I’ve done my share of it. Unfortunately, many translations simply go with “homosexuality,” even though it’s difficult to translate from the original Greek. It seems to me that the Good News Translation of “sexual perverts” is about as accurate as one can get.

The word has much more to do with pederasty (same sex relations with a minor) and rape than it does with all same sex relations. If we can easily understand the nuances of opposite sex relations, then why not same sex relations?

Frankly, I am genuinely grieved, and I lament over how Christians talk to one another about these matters.

On the one hand, there are the “truth tellers.” They have a passion for holiness and a zeal for righteousness. They point out that Jesus got angry and did not put up with people watering down the gospel. Jesus, for them, is the Divine Warrior who is ready and armed to oppose same sex marriage.  

On the other hand, there are the “lovers.” They are sincerely hurt by chatter about homosexual sinners bound for hell. For them, Jesus loves, period. He would never hurt a fly, drives a Prius, and tries to leave the most loving impact he can on the earth without a harmful spiritual footprint or a rebuke from anyone.

I, of course, have painted two extremes. But therein lies the point: The rhetoric from both hands is extreme, as if, somehow, love and truth cannot co-exist together.

Methinks one of the great problems is that few people want to take the time to listen; few are interested in understanding the other.  

Failing to possess a listening spirit means there isn’t much poverty of spirit, very little mourning over personal sin, and even less meekness.  

Instead, we look down our noses at one another.  

But is listening really that important?  Yes, it is.  

Jesus said, “If your brother sins against you, go to him and show him his fault. But do it privately, just between yourselves. If he listens to you, you have won your brother back.” (Matthew 18:15, GNT)

It’s hard to listen when people are taking pot shots at each other through social media and huddling together in their own small worlds without any diversity or contrary thought. The aforementioned quote from Jesus presupposes relationship; and there seems to be little of it going around.

“Truth teller,” will you take the time and effort to build a relationship with someone, or even a group of people, very different from yourself? Will you seek to ask questions, listen, and understand without judgment or making comments? Are you able to see the image of God in them?  

“Lover,” do you have room to love someone who is at the complete opposite end of your own understanding? Are you willing to take the time and effort to see why this person or group of people are so passionate about the issue – without believing that you already know why they think the way they do? Can you see that God’s love is big enough to extend to the unloving?

Everyone has their hot button issues in which people are at very different ends of the spectrum of thinking.  

What I am pleading for is that we in the church must take the lead by having the maturity to learn how to talk to one another without assuming we already know what the other side is all about. We don’t. And we won’t unless we listen. And we won’t listen unless we are humble; we will never be humble unless we realize our poverty of spirit before God.

Please don’t turn the good news of grace into the bad news of judgment. That, perhaps, is the worst blasphemy of all. Instead, may you embrace the mercy and peace which has been graciously given to you at the cost of great suffering.

Almighty God, from whom all thoughts of truth and peace proceed: kindle, we pray, in the hearts of all, the true love of peace and guide with your pure and peaceable wisdom those who take counsel for the nations of the earth – so that in tranquility your kingdom may go forward, till the earth is filled with the knowledge of your love; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, who is alive and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.

Psalm 85 – God Gives Grace

Psalm 85 by American artist John August Swanson, 2003

Lord, you poured out blessings on your land!
    You restored the fortunes of Israel.
You forgave the guilt of your people—
    yes, you covered all their sins.
You held back your fury.
    You kept back your blazing anger.

Now restore us again, O God of our salvation.
    Put aside your anger against us once more.
Will you be angry with us always?
    Will you prolong your wrath to all generations?
Won’t you revive us again,
    so your people can rejoice in you?
Show us your unfailing love, O Lord,
    and grant us your salvation.

I listen carefully to what God the Lord is saying,
    for he speaks peace to his faithful people.
    But let them not return to their foolish ways.
Surely his salvation is near to those who fear him,
    so our land will be filled with his glory.

Unfailing love and truth have met together.
    Righteousness and peace have kissed!
Truth springs up from the earth,
    and righteousness smiles down from heaven.
Yes, the Lord pours down his blessings.
    Our land will yield its bountiful harvest.
Righteousness goes as a herald before him,
    preparing the way for his steps. (New Living Translation)

Unfailing love, truth, righteousness, and peace are terms which all spiritual folk need to be familiar with, as well as experience every day.

Such love and commitment have their ground in God’s covenant loyalty and kindness which always holds on, even despite people’s fickle commitment.

Righteousness and peace are primarily relational terms which communicate a harmonious way of being with others and all creation.

Today’s psalm informs us that God will give exactly what the people have prayed for. This divine giving is a blessing by the Lord to those who long for wholeness, integrity, and unhindered connection with God and creation.

The metaphors surrounding the wonderful words give us a beautiful picture of the blessing realized, as if a big bucket of grace were being liberally poured over our heads.

This is no generic blessing from the almighty and everlasting God; it is personal.

In the grand immensity of the universe, the Creator God bends and condescends to the individual, as well as to all humanity. God’s steadfast love and ever-present faithfulness will meet to bless you and me.

The Lord will come alongside us with divine blessing. God’s grace will stick to us like glue in the form of right relationships and unity. It’s as personal as a kiss on the lips.

All of God’s attributes and character work in a seamless whole to bring divine acceptance and assistance to our lives. The good news here is that our struggles to be right and live right amidst terrible conditions of disease, war, and unrest will be vindicated with divine help.

So, take a big breath and exhale, allowing the worries and anxieties of adverse situations to be expelled from your weary soul. The Lord will give what is good.

“God gives where he finds empty hands.”

St. Augustine

Today’s psalm is a good reminder that salvation is not limited to a future state; it is also deliverance in this present world we inhabit, basking in the Lord’s love and shalom, and enjoying the good gifts God wants to give us right now.

But what if we have strayed from the truth and wandered down a bad road with unsavory characters?

The Lord will restore us. Why? Because that’s what God does.

Grace isn’t grace if we deserved it. Grace is only operable whenever there is a stink of a situation we have created for ourselves. God’s mercy exists to deal with all of our shortcomings, failings, sins, confusion, and misguided attempts at life.

Without mercy we are lost. Apart from grace, there’s no hope. The good news is that mercy really does exist, and, what’s more, there is an infinite storehouse of it. There is no point in which our screw-ups exhaust the supply of grace.

This reality brings us confident hope and inner gratitude. God’s unfailing and steadfast love brings deliverance, not bondage. The Lord’s infinite mercy, when truly experienced, is not taken as a license to do whatever I want but as a joyous get-out-of-jail-free-card which leads to a righteous life of wanting to please God in all I say and do.

He Giveth More Grace by Annie Johnson Flint, 1941

1. He giveth more grace as our burdens grow greater,
He sendeth more strength as our labors increase;
To added afflictions He addeth His mercy,
To multiplied trials He multiplies peace.

2. When we have exhausted our store of endurance,
When our strength has failed ere the day is half done,
When we reach the end of our hoarded resources
Our Father’s full giving is only begun.

3. Fear not that thy need shall exceed His provision,
Our God ever yearns His resources to share;
Lean hard on the arm everlasting, availing;
The Father both thee and thy load will upbear.

4. His love has no limits, His grace has no measure,
His power no boundary known unto men;
For out of His infinite riches in Jesus
He giveth, and giveth, and giveth again.

Amen.