Psalm 138 – The Lord Will Defend the Humble

I give thanks to you with all my heart, Lord.
    I sing your praise before all other gods.
I bow toward your holy temple
    and thank your name
    for your loyal love and faithfulness
        because you have made your name and word
        greater than everything else.
On the day I cried out, you answered me.
    You encouraged me with inner strength.

Let all the earth’s rulers give thanks to you, Lord,
    when they hear what you say.
Let them sing about the Lord’s ways
    because the Lord’s glory is so great!
Even though the Lord is high,
    he can still see the lowly,
    but God keeps his distance from the arrogant.

Whenever I am in deep trouble,
    you make me live again;
    you send your power against my enemies’ wrath;
    you save me with your strong hand.
The Lord will do all this for my sake.

Your faithful love lasts forever, Lord!
    Don’t let go of what your hands
    have made.
(Common English Bible)

“God opposes everyone
   who is proud,
but is kind to everyone
    who is humble.”

James 4:6, CEV

God Cares

God consistently cares for lowly and humble folk. The Lord continually draws near to them. God bends down to meet them at their level. Conversely, the Lord hangs out on the margins of proud and arrogant people. God stands straight up and looks down from afar on such persons. They will experience divine distance, mostly because their attitudes and actions put the stiff arm toward God.

One of the most frustrating experiences in life is to have someone in power arrogantly misjudge you. Rather than carefully listening and offering gracious attention, the proud already assume they know what’s going on and what is best. So, like a bull about to enter a china shop, or a timebomb ready to explode, human hubris of the heart violates and blows up another’s life based upon misinformation and faulty egotistic assumptions.

God Sees

Yet, God sees. From a lofty place, clearly observing all creaturely activity, the Lord knows what is truly happening. And God is not okay with injustice perpetrated by cocky and pretentious autocrats. Everyone will experience God’s power. It’s just a matter of what type of power one receives.

Saving and encouraging power will sustain and uphold the humble of heart. However, the power of God’s wrath is the lot of puffed up peacocks who only care about getting their way. Their own puny power will be eventually stripped away and given to those who will wield it with grace.

The difference between the proud and the lowly is evidenced by their prayers. Megalomaniacs are concerned for material acquisitions, high positions, and fame. And their prayers reflect those ambitions. The meek, however, pray for increased spiritual strength to withstand trouble; enlarged hearts to hold more of God; and acceptance of whatever the Lord wants, whether it is for personal good or ill.

God Knows

The haughty might do many things which are good. It’s possible for them to achieve greatness through outstanding work and incredible feats. Yet, God knows the real score. Jesus said:

“Not everyone who calls me Lord will enter God’s kingdom. The only people who will enter are those who do what my Father in heaven wants. On that last Day many will call me Lord. They will say, ‘Lord, Lord, by the power of your name we spoke for God. And by your name we forced out demons and did many miracles.’ Then I will tell those people clearly, ‘Get away from me, you people who do wrong. I never knew you.’” (Matthew 7:21-23, ERV)

Self-absorbed people enjoy their own presence and narcissistically believe everyone else should, too. Yet, ordinary people, being attentive to the common good of all persons, rely on the presence and protection of God for everyone and everything.

God Helps

Whereas the vainglorious person trusts in their own ability to achieve accomplishments and hold power so that they can smugly boast about their superiority, on the contrary, the meek are content to labor for the Lord in relative obscurity, to try and use their skills and aptitude for the benefit of their fellow humanity. God holds them tightly and securely, but not so with the egotistical. They will fall because they were never in God’s hand to begin with.

If the humble are weak, that’s okay. Because God is strong. If they are in trouble, no problem. The Lord has their back. They can let go, knowing there is a God who doesn’t. And that is the irony to the spiritual life – that in releasing and relinquishing we gain and acquire. We shall be vindicated by God from the wicked. For the Lord’s steadfast love will have the day.

Most merciful God, we confess that we have sinned against you in thought, word, and deed, by what we have done, and by what we have left undone. We have not loved you with our whole heart; we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves. We are terribly sorry, and we humbly repent. For the sake of your Son, Jesus Christ, have mercy on us and forgive us so that we may delight in your will, and walk in your ways, to the glory of your Name. Amen.

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.

Mark 14:26-31 – Pride Comes Before the Fall

Peter Disowns Jesus by Ethiopian artist Nebiyu Assefa

When they had sung a hymn, they went out to the Mount of Olives.

“You will all fall away,” Jesus told them, “for it is written:

“‘I will strike the shepherd,
    and the sheep will be scattered.’

But after I have risen, I will go ahead of you into Galilee.”

Peter declared, “Even if all fall away, I will not.”

“Truly I tell you,” Jesus answered, “today—yes, tonight—before the rooster crows twice you yourself will disown me three times.”

But Peter insisted emphatically, “Even if I have to die with you, I will never disown you.” And all the others said the same. (New International Version)

Learning to Trust

I have two sisters-in-law who were lifeguards when they were teenagers. One day I watched one of them handle a group of kids experiencing their first swim lesson. She went to each child and told them to put their ears in the water and their belly buttons in the air while she was holding them up. “When I count to three, you won’t feel my hands underneath you, but they’re there,” she said. Most of the kids frantically jerked their knees toward their chins and flailed their arms. Truth is, almost all people float when they assume a posture of rest. But people who think they will sink don’t keep their posture for long. 

The disciples had a hard time trusting Jesus. They just couldn’t seem to rest and relax with Jesus holding them up. After all, Jesus said and did things they were not expecting him to say and do. Jesus preached the necessity of humility and loving one’s enemies. He focused ministry on the least and the lost. 

Different Agendas

The disciples had not yet really bought into Christ’s kingdom agenda. They kept pulling their knees up, thinking Jesus was going to lead a rebellion against the Romans and put Israel back on the map. Bless their hearts, the disciples mistakenly believed Jesus was there to immediately restore the glory days of Jewish dominance in the land.

Despite Christ’s teaching and ministry, some folks believe God’s agenda ought to be restoring prayer in public schools and The Ten Commandments back in courthouses. But Jesus has a different agenda. Christ goes to the heart of the matter. New life is what he is after. Transformation leads to observance of God’s will so the least and the lost persons among us will be reached. 

Jesus turned the world upside-down by insisting not that people come to the temple but that the temple worshipers go to the people. It was not a popular teaching with the disciples, let alone everyone else. The disciples had greater (or so they thought) ideas about how things ought to go.  

Christ followers might neglect the upside-down teaching ministry of Jesus because we believe ourselves to be good people. We already assume we know what God wants. And we would never betray Jesus, right!?  O, sure, we sin occasionally, but not like murderers and child molesters. Our sins are respectable – a little resentment here, a little prejudice there, or a smidge of gossip just to make sure outsiders know and respect their place.

However, we must first hear the bad news before we can hear the good news. And once we hear the bad news and accept it, we need to receive God’s remedy for it. The disciples Peter and Judas are contrasting figures in grasping Christ’s message and responding to it.

Peter and Judas

Peter and Judas had similar ideas about how the future should look – seeing Israel restored to its previous glorious prominence. Judas was a religious and political Zealot. And Peter had no problem picking up a sword when it seemed the time was ripe for a political rebellion and takeover.

Peter insisted he would never turn on Jesus. Yet, Jesus flat-out told him that would happen. Sure enough, Peter did a big belly flop in the pool of denial by disowning Jesus three times.

Then there was Judas. He caught on quicker than Peter that Jesus wasn’t going to lead a military coup. Talking about wasting time on marginal people who couldn’t help usher-in a glorious revolution was the last straw for him.  After Judas clearly saw Jesus had no intention of fulfilling what he thought should happen, he actively sought an opportunity to betray him.

In fact, none of the disciples wanted to take a step of commitment into the world of suffering as the means of reaching others. They wanted glory, not suffering. But Jesus chose the cup of suffering.

Both Judas and Peter realized, after denying Jesus, they had made a terrible mistake. However, that is where the similarities end. Judas responded to his guilt by completing suicide.  Rather than throw himself upon the mercy of God, Judas handled the guilt himself. It was a refusal of grace.

Peter, instead, wept bitterly. He realized his poverty of spirit. He mourned over his sin. Later, Peter became a genuinely meek person with God’s righteousness taking root within him. Having received grace, Peter became a preacher of truth and grace.

Stubborn Pride

Renewal comes from spiritual transformation. It requires a brutally honest assessment of self and others. “I will never fall” comes from a heart that believes “I’m not so bad.” Our failures of faith stem ultimately from pride and a lack of trust. We keep pulling our knees up because we are too anxious to let the agenda of Jesus control our lives. 

Proud people have little need for prayer because they are self-sufficient. However, humble people pray a lot! They don’t want to fall into temptation and defame the name of the Lord. They pray because apart from Jesus Christ they know they’ll act like a cockeye little dog who thinks he is a big dog. Even Jesus himself felt the need to watch and pray so that he could face his hour of pain and suffering on behalf of humanity.

When Jesus was arrested, Peter followed him at a distance. That describes too much of our own following of Christ. We want to see how everything will shake-out before we commit. Jesus invites us to trust him, to commit, to make and keep promises before we even know what it all means. 

It could be that we need to acknowledge we’ve made a mess of our lives through being stubborn. Perhaps we have willfully held to our own ideas of how things ought to go, for far too long.

If you find yourself in a mess, whether it is of your own making or of somebody else’s, grace is the thing that can handle it. That is, coming to God with honesty and humility. Being willing to rest and relax when Jesus is telling you to. It’s okay to let your knees go down and stick the belly button out – to rest in Jesus.

Give us honest hearts, O God, and send your kindly Spirit to help us confess our sins and bring us the peace of your forgiveness, in Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

2 John 1:1-6 – Love Must Have It’s Way, or It Isn’t Love

Heart painting by Ivan Guaderrama

My dear congregation, I, your pastor, love you in very truth. And I’m not alone—everyone who knows the Truth that has taken up permanent residence in us loves you.

Let grace, mercy, and peace be with us in truth and love from God the Father and from Jesus Christ, Son of the Father!

I can’t tell you how happy I am to learn that many members of your congregation are diligent in living out the Truth, exactly as commanded by the Father. But permit me a reminder, friends, and this is not a new commandment but simply a repetition of our original and basic charter: that we love each other. Love means following his commandments, and his unifying commandment is that you conduct your lives in love. This is the first thing you heard, and nothing has changed. (MSG)

An Absence of Love

It seems no matter where we look there are groups of people with entrenched ways of looking at things. And so, their solutions to the great problems of community, nation, and world narrowly focus on one way of thinking. Those answers rarely consider John’s message. The fix usually involves the belief that one group of folks know better for every other group. It is pride, condescension, and selfishness all rolled up into a tidy package of hate to be distributed to all who oppose the sanctified plan.

Good grief. We need a bit of humility to consult voices on the margins of society – to be open in finding understanding in remote places. Sometimes, the answers to significant issues are tucked away somewhere nobody looks. The brief letter of the Apostle John to the Church is nestled in a place within the New Testament where few believers ever peek. 

Perhaps love itself has become a forgotten virtue among the very people entrusted to uphold its beauty and grace.

It is my unshakable conviction, based upon the consistent witness of Saint John the Evangelist, that everything in the Christian life rises and falls with love. Even to say this with such brash boldness is a gross understatement. That’s because love is more than an idea, a feeling, and a practice.

God is Love

God extends loving words and actions because love is the stuff that God is made up of. The very character of God is love, through and through. There is never a time when God is not loving. God’s anger and wrath are expressions of love – for God is opposed to all that which is unloving. Therefore, God extends justice and confronts sin so that love will freely flow once again amongst humanity and all creation.

John is known as the Apostle of love. He consistently espoused the primacy and permanence of love whenever he had the chance. Truth and love go together, always. John says to the church, “We love you because the truth is now in our hearts, and it will be there forever.”

The true muster of the Church and of individual believers is their love. It doesn’t matter how right or important the cause is. If the strategy to implement that cause leaves love out of the equation, it is a fool’s errand.

A profound lack of love is the litmus test that belies a faulty and heretical doctrine of Jesus. The absence of love is always the clue there is going to be some impure teaching behind it. The real enemy of Christ is the one who claims Christianity but does not love in either word or deed. If we really want to love God, we will love one another, and vice-versa.

Love and Truth Always Go Together

To embrace truth is to love a group of people wherever they are. It is to see them, listen to them, then act on their behalf. Far too often Christians are known for their hubris in superimposing on others what those others need – believing they already know the truth of both Bible and them.

Love abides with the truth of a people. Genuine love seeks the truth and responds accordingly. Love is willing to find out what the issues are of a people. Assuming others need our money, our plans, our service, or our solutions assumes we already understand their situation apart from hearing from them.

Love is longsuffering. It is willing to sit with folks for as long as it takes. Love orients itself around the patient and careful application of biblical truth to the truth of a people. And that takes a great deal of time and effort. There are no shortcuts to love. Love must have its way, or it isn’t love. Since God is love, God must have his way in us first.

Maybe we need to come back again and again to the great ode to love expressed by the Apostle Paul. After all, the consistent witness of truth throughout the Bible is love.

Love, the Motivation of Our Lives

If I were to speak with eloquence in earth’s many languages, and in the heavenly tongues of angels, yet I didn’t express myself with love, my words would be reduced to the hollow sound of nothing more than a clanging cymbal.

And if I were to have the gift of prophecy with a profound understanding of God’s hidden secrets, and if I possessed unending supernatural knowledge, and if I had the greatest gift of faith that could move mountains, but have never learned to love, then I am nothing.

And if I were to be so generous as to give away what I own to feed the poor, and to offer my body to be burned as a martyr, without the pure motive of love, I would gain nothing of value.

Love is large and incredibly patient. Love is gentle and consistently kind to all. It refuses to be jealous when blessing comes to someone else. Love does not brag about one’s achievements nor inflate its own importance. Love does not traffic in shame and disrespect, nor selfishly seek its own honor. Love is not easily irritated or quick to take offense. Love joyfully celebrates honesty and finds no delight in what is wrong. Love is a safe place of shelter, for it never stops believing the best for others. Love never takes failure as defeat, for it never gives up.

Perfect Love

Love never stops loving. It extends beyond the gift of prophecy, which eventually fades away. It is more enduring than tongues, which will one day fall silent. Love remains long after words of knowledge are forgotten. Our present knowledge and our prophecies are but partial, but when love’s perfection arrives, the partial will fade away. When I was a child, I spoke about childish matters, for I saw things like a child and reasoned like a child. But the day came when I matured, and I set aside my childish ways.

For now, we see but a faint reflection of riddles and mysteries as though reflected in a mirror, but one day we will see face-to-face. My understanding is incomplete now, but one day I will understand everything, just as everything about me has been fully understood. Until then, there are three things that remain: faith, hope, and love—yet love surpasses them all. So, above all else, let love be the beautiful prize for which you run. (1 Corinthians 13, TPT)

Amen.