Hebrews 2:1-9 – Paying Attention

Calvin and Hobbes - paying attention

We must pay the most careful attention, therefore, to what we have heard, so that we do not drift away. For since the message spoken through angels was binding, and every violation and disobedience received its just punishment, how shall we escape if we ignore so great a salvation? This salvation, which was first announced by the Lord, was confirmed to us by those who heard him. God also testified to it by signs, wonders, and various miracles, and by gifts of the Holy Spirit distributed according to his will.

It is not to angels that he has subjected the world to come, about which we are speaking. But there is a place where someone has testified:

“What is mankind that you are mindful of them,
a son of man that you care for him?
You made them a little lower than the angels;
you crowned them with glory and honor
     and put everything under their feet.”

In putting everything under them, God left nothing that is not subject to them. Yet at present we do not see everything subject to them. But we do see Jesus, who was made lower than the angels for a little while, now crowned with glory and honor because he suffered death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone. (NIV)

My wife and three daughters all have attention deficit disorder (A.D.D.). Although many people believe this to be a disadvantage, I have noticed that since their brain chemistry doesn’t have a good filter for filtering all the stimuli they hear each day, each of them are much more intentional about picking out the voice they want to hear and engaging with it.  Whereas you and I might take this for granted, the women in my life know the value of creating the skills to pay attention.

The ability to pay attention and listen is necessary for a sustainable Christian life. The consequence of not developing such competency is that we will drift away – our minds will wander and allow other competing voices to overwhelm the singular voice of Jesus.  Taking salvation for granted may be setting us up for spiritual failure. That is, we think we already know about Christ’s person and work, so we neglect to really pay attention. Bad idea.

Assuming we are paying attention is not the same thing as actually doing it. Assumptions lead to drifting away from truth.  We are meant to have continual reminders of Christ’s redemptive events. We are to avoid the precarious position of being lost in a sea of competing voices. We need an intentional plan for paying attention without assuming we will be focused. Along with paying attention to our physical health and being vigilant about keeping the coronavirus at bay, here are a few ways of daily being mindful of our spiritual health:

  • Read the Scripture each day with a combination of standing and sitting, reading silently and out loud.
  • Hold a cross or other Christian reminder in your hand and feel free to fidget with it.
  • Journal your thoughts in a notebook.
  • Set a consistent time and place for bible reading and prayer.
  • Use different translations and versions of the Bible to read.
  • Go outside occasionally and pray while walking.
  • Focus on your breathing, and consider using breath prayers, i.e. Breathe out: “Speak Lord.” Breathe in: “I am listening.”
  • Drink some coffee, tea, or something soothing, and picture the comfort of Christ coming into your life.
  • Be aware of distractions and acknowledge them without judging yourself.
  • Observe the Christian Year and the Daily Lectionary.

While some might argue that observing Lectionaries, the Church Calendar, Christian seasons, and worship liturgies are vain repetition, I insist otherwise: We are in grave danger of not paying attention to what we have heard, lest we drift away from it.  Like a beach goer on the lake drifting on her flotation device far out from shore, we can be unaware of how far we have strayed from our spiritual moorings.  If the passion and death of Jesus can only get a shoulder shrug and a “meh” out of us, there is a real problem.

Forming habits of worship, fellowship, service, and piety are essential to deliberately maintaining attention to Jesus. Perhaps if we all had spiritual A.D.D. we would be more intentional about grafting reminders and practices into our lives.

Ignorance does not come from a lack of education; it comes from a failure to pay attention to the most important things in life.

God pays attention to us in a special way, different from all other creation. As the only creatures for whom the image and likeness of God resides, we have an innate sense of connection with the divine. Paying attention to things, especially to what Christ has secured for us through the cross, reflects the God who is continually observing humanity.

May your contemplation of Christ and his redemptive events of incarnation, holy life, teaching, death, resurrection, and ascension be always fresh and continually meaningful.

Soli Deo Gloria.

Luke 10:21-24 – Freedom and Blessing

Ethiopian Jesus 2
Ethiopian Orthodox depiction of Jesus teaching

Then Jesus rejoiced in the Holy Spirit and said, “I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the people who are wise and smart. But you have shown them to those who are like little children. Yes, Father, this is what you really wanted.

“My Father has given me all things. No one knows who the Son is, except the Father. And no one knows who the Father is, except the Son and those whom the Son chooses to tell.”

Then Jesus turned to his followers and said privately, “You are blessed to see what you now see. I tell you, many prophets and kings wanted to see what you now see, but they did not, and they wanted to hear what you now hear, but they did not.” (NCV)

A healthy view of Holy Scripture is to look at it as an unfolding drama of redemption. Ever since the fall of humanity, God has been on a rescue mission to reclaim, redeem, and restore people. This human project has obviously taken several millennia; and, it still has not reached its fulfillment.

The Christian tradition understands that the climax of victory and final restoration to our true state as humans will occur when Christ returns. By warning us that divine mysteries are hidden to some and revealed to others is Jesus’ way of cautioning us toward triumphalism and self-congratulation. Yes, redemption is a reality; and, it is also not a reality. It is both here and is coming. We are delivered from sin, death, and hell – and, we still labor against the evil machinations of systemic world problems, our own sinful nature, and a demonic realm which is looking for every opportunity to exploit sin’s residue upon the earth.

What this all means on a practical basis is that the good old days for some were the bad old days for others. History is always written by the winners and those in power. The hidden voices are typically squelched. The vision of Jesus is that all kinds of people, not just a certain segment of winners, should enjoy God’s favor.

There were ancient people who longed for spiritual and physical freedom. They looked forward into history and had the hope of Messiah and God’s promises being fulfilled. History is still unfolding. People yet remain locked in personal bondage and large swaths of humanity still experience oppression and a longing to enjoy blessings which others possess and take for granted.

On this Independence Day in the United States it is important that we recognize and hold together both the blessings of realized freedom along with the limits of others’ freedom. And, with this realization, we continue to actively work for all people and keep praying that God’s kingdom come and God’s will be done, here on earth, as it is always done in heaven.

Frederick Douglass
Frederick Douglass, circa 1852

So, today, I am lifting a voice from history which exemplifies the struggle of the black experience in America. The following is a small portion from a speech by the ex-slave Frederick Douglass orated on July 4, 1852, nine years before civil war, with President Millard Fillmore and many congressional politicians in attendance:

“The feeling of the nation must be quickened; the conscience of the nation must be roused; the propriety of the nation must be startled; the hypocrisy of the nation must be exposed; and its crimes against God and man must be proclaimed and denounced. What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July? I answer: a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim. To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciations of tyrants, brass fronted impudence; your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanksgivings, with all your religious parade, and solemnity, are, to him, mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy — a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages. There is not a nation on the earth guilty of practices more shocking and bloodier than are the people of these United States, at this very hour.”

Because history is forever unfolding, freedom and blessing develop over time and come more powerfully to some than others. True spiritual discernment, with the awareness to labor on behalf of the common good, does not ultimately come through astute observation and superior intellect; it comes by divine revelation. God will both conceal and reveal according to divine purposes and not human agendas.

Christian spirituality cannot be reduced to praying a sinner’s prayer and then maintaining a holding pattern on earth until heaven. Rather, Jesus remains present in this world through the person of the Holy Spirit and is continually interceding on behalf of those who need freedom and blessing. As Christ’s Body, Christians are to be the hands and feet of Jesus, animated by the Spirit to bring God’s ethical and benevolent regime to those who need it most.

If we are blessed, we are to pass blessing on without prejudice. For the kingdom of God belongs to the poor in spirit.

Dear God, Creator of the universe and all that inhabit it, we come as your Church, and as individuals, in humble submission to your word and your way. God, you are the Alpha and Omega, The Almighty Judge and The Forgiver of All Sins, so we come with humility and contrition on behalf of generations past, present and those yet unborn. We ask that you forgive us and create in us a new spirit. Bind our hearts and send forth the healing power that you and you alone can give to us and this sin-sick world. Bring us into reconciliation with one another and restore us to your righteous and holy path. Amen.

Galatians 5:2-6 – Faith Expressing Itself Through Love

The Sneetches

Mark my words! I, Paul, tell you that if you let yourselves be circumcised, Christ will be of no value to you at all. Again, I declare to every man who lets himself be circumcised that he is obligated to obey the whole law. You who are trying to be justified by the law have been alienated from Christ; you have fallen away from grace. For through the Spirit we eagerly await by faith the righteousness for which we hope. For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision has any value. The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love. (NIV)

Everyone needs the grace of faith expressing itself through love. I didn’t grow up committed to learning the Bible or following Christ. I pretty much went my own way throughout childhood, and especially the teenage years. I still remember what it felt like to not follow in the way of Christ. My view of the world was jaded, believing that most of humanity were basically uncaring self-absorbed creatures. I also knew the darkness of my own heart. When people, as I did long ago, view the world and self this way, there is a tragic loneliness where no one reaches out to the other, since everyone is guarded. A person and a world devoid of grace and reliant on law is, at best, a harsh place; and, at worst, a sort of dystopian nightmare.

It seems people who have a graceless past and only looked out for themselves often have a temptation to embrace strict rules when they become Christians. They know what it feels like to not have Jesus in their lives, so they sometimes, out of fear of returning to the old life, go beyond Scripture and impose standards on themselves, and then others, to keep on the straight and narrow to avoid sin.

If, or when, that happens, the Apostle Paul has something to say about it.  Embracing certain practices to obtain or maintain righteousness mean diddly-squat in God’s kingdom.  Here is how the Common English Bible version translates Paul’s words to the church who went down the path of strict outward rule-keeping:

“You people who are trying to be made righteous by the Law have been estranged from Christ. You have fallen away from grace! We eagerly wait for the hope of righteousness through the Spirit by faith. Being circumcised or not being circumcised doesn’t matter in Christ Jesus, but faith working through love does matter.” (Galatians 5:4-6, CEB)

A form of Christianity which ignores God’s grace in favor of controlling one’s own faith through certain rules is not Christianity at all, and Paul would have nothing to do with it. His position was clear and pointed:

“You were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only don’t let this freedom be an opportunity to indulge your selfish impulses but serve each other through love.” (Galatians 5:13, CEB)

Grace is the currency of God’s kingdom, flowing freely through love. God has your back. With him we need not be guarded. God’s grace forgives, and never runs out. God’s love endures and never withdraws. When we get a hold of this essential and beautiful truth about God, the only rule we want to keep is Paul’s admonition to the Roman church:

“Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for whoever loves others has fulfilled the law.” (Romans 13:8, NIV)

So, are there any practices, rules, beliefs, or doctrines you impose on yourself which are burdensome to you?  Why do you do them? Do you expect others to do them, too? What would change if you threw grace and love in the mix?

It must continually be borne in mind that love does not foster an antinomian spirit of being against the law because love itself is the fulfillment of law. Paul, again, explained his reasoning:

The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery,” “You shall not murder,” “You shall not steal,” “You shall not covet,” and whatever other command there may be, are summed up in this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no harm to a neighbor. Therefore, love is the fulfillment of the law. (Romans 13:9-10, NIV)

The Apostle Paul’s issue was not so much with circumcision itself as it was why the church wanted to practice it to begin with. Circumcision has always been an outward sign of an invisible reality – for the Jewish people – a truth which seemed lost on the Gentile churches. Paul’s agitation and frustration had to do with the church’s reason for considering circumcision. Much like the star-bellied Sneetches of Dr. Seuss’s classic story, the impetus behind wanting circumcision was to leverage power and superiority over others.

A vision of a new egalitarian society of redeemed persons based in the finished work of Jesus Christ (grace) was at risk, and Paul was going to address any imposed practices of exclusion (law) which would compromise and erode true community. Methinks the Apostle Paul and Dr. Seuss would have gotten along well together:

The day they decided that Sneetches are Sneetches

And no kind of Sneetch is the best on the beaches

That day, all the Sneetches forgot about stars

And whether they had one, or not, upon thars.

The Sneetches, by Dr. Seuss, 1961

Gracious God, your love has extended so far as to give your one and only Son on our behalf.  Through Jesus, I embrace the faith and love gifted to me through his redeeming work.  Help me to daily die to myself and my propensity for outward rule-keeping, and to live the gracious life you died to procure for me in the power of your Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Ephesians 2:1-7 – Raised with Christ

Ascension

You were dead through the trespasses and sins in which you once lived, following the course of this world, following the ruler of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work among those who are disobedient. All of us once lived among them in the passions of our flesh, following the desires of flesh and senses, and we were by nature children of wrath, like everyone else. But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved— and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the ages to come he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. (NRSV)

In the wake of recognizing and remembering Ascension Day, Christ’s ascension to heaven, we must linger a bit with the implications of that great redemptive event for us. Today’s New Testament lesson from the letter to the Ephesians is a wondrous place to do some holy loitering.

The Apostle Paul wrote to the Ephesian church and gave them a theological explanation of their true position as Christians. They were once located in the realm darkness, the place of disobedience and selfishness. Now, however, as believers in Jesus Christ, they have been relocated to the realm of light, the place of love and kindness. This major relocation project is the direct effort of God’s merciful initiative. Jesus descended in his incarnation and lived at the garbage dump with us. Christ’s life and death delivered us from that putrid existence. Jesus ascended to heaven. He did not leave us in the dump.

The rich theology which Paul expresses to the Ephesians is so robust that he makes up new words just to try and communicate it. Through God’s gracious action he “made us alive together with Christ,” “raised us up with him,” and “seated us with him in the heavenly places.” Paul took words and smashed them together to create new compound words to try and communicate the amazing reality of the Christian’s position in Jesus Christ. In English, we need to use several words to translate Paul’s original compound words.

Paul used new words because he was expressing a new reality. Ascension is more than Christ’s own – he, spiritually, takes us with him. We belong with him. Our union, our intimacy, with Jesus is so vitally connected that what happens with Jesus happens with us. With Jesus as the Head of the Church, and we as the Body of Christ, there is absolutely no separation between the two.

The implications of this understanding are tectonic:

  • Since God’s action was done out of love, our spiritual DNA has love written all over it. We no longer feel as if we must manipulate, cajole, or twist arms to be noticed and have our needs met.
  • Since God is rich in mercy, we have a new place to live – with Christ – and no longer hang out in the shame lounge drinking cheap wine and smoking nasty cigars.
  • Since God has given us new life in Christ, we are aware of our position and now can deliberately choose to participate with him in a mind-blowing, gut-busting, heart-exploding divine/human adventure beyond what we could ever have imagined. We no longer are in the position to create selfish agendas and ignore the common good of all humanity.
  • Since God has picked us up, cleaned us up, and sat us down next to Jesus, we have a front row seat to the triune God showing kindness to us and so many others. We no longer have a truncated worldview which sees only pain and heartbreak.
  • Since God has orchestrated deliverance from the old life; since Christ has achieved that deliverance for us; and, since the Spirit has awakened us – we now have a new life thoroughly imbibed with the medicine of faith, the healing power of hope, and the elixir of love. With grace binding our lives together with God, no more judging, blaming, shaming, nor hating need occur anymore.
  • Since we belong to God, we enjoy all the love of the Father, the mercy of the Son, and the vigor of the Holy Spirit. We have risen above all the terrible muck of sin and given a new place to live. Since Jesus ascended, we ascend with him. Praise be to God!

As people, we live into who we believe we are. We are the precious children of God, redeemed and adopted into a divine family. May we live up to our position in Jesus Christ.

Almighty and merciful God, in your goodness keep me, I pray, from returning to the pig pen of an old life. May I be ready in both body and soul to freely choose things which belong to your purposes of love; through Jesus Christ my Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.