Galatians 4:8-20 – It’s All About Grace

A mosaic of the Apostle Paul in St Isaac’s Cathedral, St. Petersburg, Russia

Formerly, when you did not know God, you were slaves to those who by nature are not gods. But now that you know God—or rather are known by God—how is it that you are turning back to those weak and miserable forces? Do you wish to be enslaved by them all over again? You are observing special days and months and seasons and years!I fear for you, that somehow I have wasted my efforts on you.

I plead with you, brothers and sisters, become like me, for I became like you. You did me no wrong. As you know, it was because of an illness that I first preached the gospel to you, and even though my illness was a trial to you, you did not treat me with contempt or scorn. Instead, you welcomed me as if I were an angel of God, as if I were Christ Jesus himself. Where, then, is your blessing of me now? I can testify that, if you could have done so, you would have torn out your eyes and given them to me. Have I now become your enemy by telling you the truth?

Those people are zealous to win you over, but for no good. What they want is to alienate you from us, so that you may have zeal for them. It is fine to be zealous, provided the purpose is good, and to be so always, not just when I am with you. My dear children, for whom I am again in the pains of childbirth until Christ is formed in you, how I wish I could be with you now and change my tone, because I am perplexed about you! (New International Version)

Grace is the most wonderful spiritual reality of all. It is forgiveness, freedom, faith, acceptance, and love all rolled up in a package given specially to you and me.

Grace is also terribly hard for a lot of folks to wrap both their heads and their hearts around. It is scandalous, subversive, and stupefying.

It was hard for the Galatian Church. Having embraced the grace of God in Christ for their deliverance from guilt and a shameful past, they then set their lives on the law to work out their sanctification. In other words, the Galatian believers did a sort of half-repentance; they turned from useless ways and were saved by grace, then turned around and decided, like a dog returning to it’s vomit, to go back to the law for the governing rule of their Christian lives.

If grace was good enough for salvation (which it was) it’s also good enough for sanctification, to be the chief operating force of the Christian’s life and ministry (which it is).

“Grace fills empty spaces but it can only enter where there is a void to receive it, and it is grace itself which makes this void.”

Simone Weil

A life filled with endless rules and regulations is unable to receive the life-flowing life-giving stream of grace. Grace is even so wondrously powerful that it is the force which breaks all other lesser forces and takes over.

This was the Apostle Paul’s experience. Having been the ultimate rule-keeper and law-abider, he was completely overtaken by a tsunami of grace. It stripped him of all the laws which kept him from Christ and the gospel. Grace changed his mind, his heart, and his life. He would never be the same again.

So, with the confidence of grace behind him, Paul could implore the Galatians to be just like him. I wonder if any of us could say the same.

Paul was a committed follower of Jesus – so much so that he ached and longed for others to embrace a life of grace, just as he had. It was actually painful for Paul to see others held by the cold grip of the law and not the warm embrace of grace. Like a mother about to give birth, he was laboring and working hard to give spiritual birth to those that would become like Jesus.

If you have experienced a transformed life in Jesus Christ, as if you have been born again by grace through the Spirit, then you likely feel and resonate with the travail of Paul. Knowing the elixir of grace, you want everyone to drink it in and be inebriated with its effects. You want it so bad that it hurts. You desire it to the point of exclaiming, “I beg you to be like me!”

You may spend many of your days with family, friends, neighbors, or co-worders who are strangers to grace. Either they are stuck in the clutches of the law and are fearful stick-in-the-muds because of it, or they simply do not know what they are missing. 

It is good to regularly ask ourselves, “What am I afraid of? Will this thing matter in the end? Is it worth holding on to?”

Grace will lead us into our fears and emptiness, and grace alone can fill them up, that is, if we are willing to stay in the void. We must become comfortable with asking questions for which we might never get answers.

People of deep faith develop a high tolerance for ambiguity and find less and less a need for the certainty of rules and regulations. Grace teaches us to swim in the river of mystery and find our home in faith.

Gracious God, may you weave your way into the lives of those who need you the most, so that mercy will be more than a theological idea. Work in me in such a way that I can stand with Paul and encourage others to be like me, through Jesus Christ, in the power of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

2 Chronicles 34:20-33 – Renew Your Faith

He [King Josiah] gave these orders to Hilkiah, Ahikam son of Shaphan, Abdon son of Micah, Shaphan the secretary and Asaiah the king’s attendant:“Go and inquire of the Lord for me and for the remnant in Israel and Judah about what is written in this book that has been found. Great is the Lord’s anger that is poured out on us because those who have gone before us have not kept the word of the Lord; they have not acted in accordance with all that is written in this book.”

Hilkiah and those the king had sent with him went to speak to the prophet Huldah, who was the wife of Shallum son of Tokhath, the son of Hasrah, keeper of the wardrobe. She lived in Jerusalem, in the New Quarter.

She said to them, “This is what the Lord, the God of Israel, says: Tell the man who sent you to me, ‘This is what the Lord says: I am going to bring disaster on this place and its people—all the curses written in the book that has been read in the presence of the king of Judah. Because they have forsaken me and burned incense to other gods and aroused my anger by all that their hands have made, my anger will be poured out on this place and will not be quenched.’ 

Tell the king of Judah, who sent you to inquire of the Lord, ‘This is what the Lord, the God of Israel, says concerning the words you heard: Because your heart was responsive and you humbled yourself before God when you heard what he spoke against this place and its people, and because you humbled yourself before me and tore your robes and wept in my presence, I have heard you, declares the Lord. Now I will gather you to your ancestors, and you will be buried in peace. Your eyes will not see all the disaster I am going to bring on this place and on those who live here.’”

So, they took her answer back to the king.

Then the king called together all the elders of Judah and Jerusalem. He went up to the temple of the Lord with the people of Judah, the inhabitants of Jerusalem, the priests and the Levites—all the people from the least to the greatest. He read in their hearing all the words of the Book of the Covenant, which had been found in the temple of the Lord. The king stood by his pillar and renewed the covenant in the presence of the Lord—to follow the Lord and keep his commands, statutes and decrees with all his heart and all his soul, and to obey the words of the covenant written in this book.

Then he had everyone in Jerusalem and Benjamin pledge themselves to it; the people of Jerusalem did this in accordance with the covenant of God, the God of their ancestors.

Josiah removed all the detestable idols from all the territory belonging to the Israelites, and he had all who were present in Israel serve the Lord their God. As long as he lived, they did not fail to follow the Lord, the God of their ancestors. (New International Version)

Sadness transformed to joy is a beautiful thing. However, joy that turns into an “Uh, oh!” is an altogether different thing.

Today’s Old Testament lesson has both sadness and joy, at the same time. God’s temple was undergoing repairs. And the Book of the Law was found. It’s sad that the Law was even lost, at all. Somewhere along the line a king, a priest, some people, they all just plain forgot about God’s Word to them. 

Yet, what’s joyful is that King Josiah had God’s Word read to him. He and his officials responded with promising to be faithful to what they heard, and to carefully follow God and God’s instructions for them as God’s people. What’s more, Josiah asked the Israelites to make that same promise.

It’s likely that you are reading this because you are a person committed to listening to God’s Word. Also, it’s likely you don’t need to go on an archaeological dig inside your own house, just to find an old dusty Bible to read. 

Maybe, however, you need to take the next step, like Josiah of old, to not only listen and obey yourself, but to ask and invite others to make the same promise.

You and I know that straightforward Bible reading often does not take place within the homes and even the churches of many confessing believers in Jesus. So, take the next step. Invite others to read with you. Ask fellow Christians to read Scripture, make observations about it, apply it to their lives, and base prayers upon it. 

Ask them to make the same promise that you have made to God: To listen to God’s Word, and then, do what it says.

This is how renewal happens.

Patient God, you continue to wait for people to read your Word and obey it. May I not simply attend to your laws in isolation from others, but freely ask others to make the same promise I have: To obey Jesus Christ, my Lord, by living and loving like him, in the power of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

2 Chronicles 15:1-15 – Revive Us Again

The Spirit of God came on Azariah son of Oded. He went out to meet Asa and said to him, “Listen to me, Asa and all Judah and Benjamin. The Lord is with you when you are with him. If you seek him, he will be found by you, but if you forsake him, he will forsake you. For a long time, Israel was without the true God, without a priest to teach and without the law. 

But in their distress they turned to the Lord, the God of Israel, and sought him, and he was found by them. In those days it was not safe to travel about, for all the inhabitants of the lands were in great turmoil. One nation was being crushed by another and one city by another, because God was troubling them with every kind of distress. But as for you, be strong and do not give up, for your work will be rewarded.”

When Asa heard these words and the prophecy of Azariah son of Oded the prophet, he took courage. He removed the detestable idols from the whole land of Judah and Benjamin and from the towns he had captured in the hills of Ephraim. He repaired the altar of the Lord that was in front of the portico of the Lord’s temple.

Then he assembled all Judah and Benjamin and the people from Ephraim, Manasseh and Simeon who had settled among them, for large numbers had come over to him from Israel when they saw that the Lord his God was with him.

They assembled at Jerusalem in the third month of the fifteenth year of Asa’s reign. At that time, they sacrificed to the Lord seven hundred head of cattle and seven thousand sheep and goats from the plunder they had brought back. They entered into a covenant to seek the Lord, the God of their ancestors, with all their heart and soul. All who would not seek the Lord, the God of Israel, were to be put to death, whether small or great, man or woman. They took an oath to the Lord with loud acclamation, with shouting and with trumpets and horns. All Judah rejoiced about the oath because they had sworn it wholeheartedly. They sought God eagerly, and he was found by them. So, the Lord gave them rest on every side. (New International Version)

God’s people had drifted. Times of seeking the Lord became few and far between – until it rarely happened, at all. They were spiritually dry with seemingly no hope. How did they get to the point of being so far from God that they needed a spiritual revival?

After God brought Israel out of hundreds of years of slavery in Egypt, they were led to the Promised Land with Moses as leader. Moses died, and his young protégé Joshua took over and led Israel in her military campaigns to take the land that God had promised them. 

God kept the divine promises. However, although Israel had geographically taken the land, they did not completely dislodge all the peoples living there, as God had told them to do. God’s people only partially obeyed. They were content to be in the land without dealing with all the remaining people.

Israel and Judah’s relationship to the land also serves as a metaphor for the church and her faith. Israel saw the land as a possession, as something to have, rather than as something to be used and developed for the glory of God. 

If and when God’s people, in any age, look upon their faith as merely a possession, instead of a dynamic relationship between themselves and the Lord, then the beginnings of spiritual rigor mortis begin to settle in. 

We get a haunting narrative in the book of Judges, after the people took the land, and Joshua died: 

“After that whole generation had been gathered to their ancestors, another generation grew up who knew neither the Lord nor what he had done for Israel… They forsook the Lord, the God of their ancestors, who had brought them out of Egypt. They followed and worshiped various gods of the peoples around them. They aroused the Lord’s anger.” (Judges 2:10-12)

The land became something not to lose, instead of something God wanted to use to grow them into faithful people.

The day God’s people took the land was the day they rejoiced in victory, and also the day their faith began to die. The Old Testament is a long drawn out story of a disobedient and obstinate people who continually forsake their God and live like the nations for whom they did not overcome. 

The Lord, ever the longsuffering and patient God, went century after century sending prophets to call them back to a living faith. Yet, with each passing year, they’d die a little bit more.

The promise, however, was always there: Seek God, and you will find him. Whenever the people were reminded of that reality and took it to heart by going after the Lord, there was revival in the land.

Restore us, Lord God Almighty;
    make your face shine on us,
    that we may be saved.

Psalm 80:19, NIV

God’s people, in every age, must look upon faith as a wonderful opportunity to spiritually engage the world – to explore all the dimensions of knowing God. That requires putting unhealthy stuff aside and taking up healthy practices. The word for that action is “repentance.” And the result is revival, or new life.

For the Christian, if the goal is to just keep some semblance of looking like a real follower of Jesus, then there is probably some inner distress which no one sees. If we become more afraid of making mistakes than we are of missing God-given opportunities, then the time is ripe for a revival. 

God does not send us to safe places to do easy things; the Lord sends prophets to remind us of our true calling, to revive us again.

The need for resurrection presupposes that there is death. Praying for revival, renewal, and reawakening means that something needs life. With God, nothing is impossible – even the deadest and driest of people and situations.

God specializes in both giving and restoring life. The Lord does more than help; God finds us and changes us. reanimates us from spiritual rigor mortis to lively resurrection through breathing on us. Jesus came to his disciples after the resurrection and said:

“Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.” And with that he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. ” (John 20:21-22, NIV)

Faith is more than a possession; it is also a gift to be used to glorify God in loving one another and loving the world as Jesus did.

You live where you live because God wants you to bring life to your neighborhood. 

Who will pray for your neighbors, if not you? 

Who will be concerned for our communities, if not us? 

You work at your workplace because God wants to bring life to it.

Who will make a difference at your workplace, if not you? 

You are in your family, your school, or your church because God wants to bring life to all those spaces and places.

Who will bring a vigorous spiritual life everywhere they are, if not you? 

We are to seek the Lord. It isn’t a game of hide-and-seek. It is an act of faith, believing that God can and will be found by those who seek after him. And wherever God is found, there you will find abundant life.

Perhaps, just maybe, what is needed is some heartfelt, sustained, and focused prayer to God.

Ask and it will be given to you.

Seek and you will find.

Knock and the door will be opened to you. 

For everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened. (Matthew 7:7-8)

Revive us again, fill each heart with thy love.
May each soul be rekindled with fire from above.

Hallelujah! Thine the glory, hallelujah! Amen!
Hallelujah! Thine the glory, revive us again. – W.P. Mackay, 1863

Luke 19:1-10 – I Want to See Jesus

Zacchaeus by Joel Whitehead

Jesus entered Jericho and was passing through. A man was there by the name of Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was wealthy. He wanted to see who Jesus was, but because he was short he could not see over the crowd. So, he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore-fig tree to see him, since Jesus was coming that way.

When Jesus reached the spot, he looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, come down immediately. I must stay at your house today.” So, he came down at once and welcomed him gladly.

All the people saw this and began to mutter, “He has gone to be the guest of a sinner.”

But Zacchaeus stood up and said to the Lord, “Look, Lord! Here and now, I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount.”

Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because this man, too, is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.” (New International Version)

Every time I read this story about Zacchaeus climbing up the sycamore tree to see Jesus because he was a short man, I think of the old ‘70s song Short People by Randy Newman. The song was (and still is) criticized by some as being prejudiced against short people. 

Indeed, the criticism seems justified with lyrics such as “short people got no reason to live.” Yet, the song’s intended purpose was really the opposite – to be an attack on the pervasive prejudice of the day, and an attempt to heighten the awareness of the inability to recognize others different from ourselves. “Short people are the same as you and I. All men are brothers until the day they die” are the lyrics containing the real message within the song.

At first glance of the story of the short Zacchaeus, it seems to be about his inability to see. Yet the real heart of the story is that Zacchaeus is unable to see because the other people are obstacles to his sight. 

In turns out that Jesus is the only person who truly sees Zacchaeus. No one else sees him. No one else seems to care. While everyone else is busy with their own line of sight, Jesus is concerned to see the one person who is unseen – Zacchaeus. 

And here is the reason why Jesus had his radar attuned to picking up Zacchaeus: Because Jesus came to seek, see, and save those who are lost.

The most pertinent application of this story for us, it seems to me, is that we need to repent of being obstacles to others coming to Jesus – and turn to becoming the conduits to others meeting with Jesus. 

People who are short on faith, short on hope, and short on love desperately need the love of God in the gracious person of Jesus Christ. 

So, what will you and I do today to help another see Jesus?

You are the light of the world. A city on top of a hill can’t be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a basket. Instead, they put it on top of a lampstand, and it shines on all who are in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before people, so they can see the good things you do and praise your Father who is in heaven. (Matthew 5:14-16, CEB)

Do we become discouraged when we cannot see what we expect to see?

When John was in prison, he heard about the things Christ had done. So, he sent his disciples to ask Jesus, “Are you the one who is coming, or should we look for someone else?”

Jesus answered John’s disciples, “Go back, and tell John what you hear and see: Blind people see again, lame people are walking, those with skin diseases are made clean, deaf people hear again, dead people are brought back to life, and poor people hear the Good News. (Matthew 11:2-5, GW)

Do we have eyes to see?

Jesus said, “I came into this world for judgment so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind.” (John 9:39, NRSV)

Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father! (John 14:9, NLT)

Will you and I humble ourselves, and stoop to see?

As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man dressed in a white robe sitting on the right side, and they were alarmed.

“Don’t be alarmed,” he said. “You are looking for Jesus the Nazarene, who was crucified. He has risen! He is not here. See the place where they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter, ‘He is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him, just as he told you.’” (Mark 16:5-7, NIV)

Can you see now?

God has put everything under our power and has not left anything out of our power. But we still don’t see it all under our control. What we do see is Jesus, who for a little while was made lower than the angels. Because of God’s gift of undeserved grace, Jesus died for everyone. And now that Jesus has suffered and died, he is crowned with glory and honor! (Hebrews 2:8-9, CEV)

Loving Lord Jesus, give me the grace to see you in all things throughout my days on this earth. Help me to see your benevolent kingdom come and see your ethical will be done, here on earth, as it is always done in heaven. Amen.