Isaiah 49:5-15 – Restoration

Even before I was born,
    the Lord God chose me
to serve him and to lead back
    the people of Israel.
So the Lord has honored me
    and made me strong.

Now the Lord says to me,
“It isn’t enough for you
    to be merely my servant.
You must do more than lead back
survivors
from the tribes
    of Israel.
I have placed you here as a light
    for other nations;
you must take my saving power
    to everyone on earth.

Israel, I am the holy Lord God,
    the one who rescues you.
You are slaves of rulers
and of a nation
    who despises you.
Now this is what I promise:
Kings and rulers will honor you
    by kneeling at your feet.
You can trust me! I am your Lord,
the holy God of Israel,
    and you are my chosen ones.”

This is what the Lord says:
    “I will answer your prayers
because I have set a time
when I will help
    by coming to save you.
I have chosen you
to take my promise of hope
    to other nations.
You will rebuild the country
    from its ruins,
then people will come
    and settle there.
You will set prisoners free
from dark dungeons
    to see the light of day.

On their way home,
they will find plenty to eat,
    even on barren hills.
They won’t go hungry
    or get thirsty;
they won’t be bothered
by the scorching sun
    or hot desert winds.
I will be merciful
while leading them along
    to streams of water.
I will level the mountains
    and make roads.
Then my people will return
    from distant lands
in the north and the west
    and from the city of Syene.

Tell the heavens and the earth
    to celebrate and sing;
command every mountain
    to join in the song.”
The Lord’s people have suffered,
but he has shown mercy
    and given them comfort.

The people of Zion said,
“The Lord has turned away
    and forgotten us.”

The Lord answered,
“Could a mother forget a child
    who nurses at her breast?
Could she fail to love an infant
    who came from her own body?
Even if a mother could forget,
    I will never forget you.” (CEV)

Restoration is a major theme in the prophetic books of the Old Testament. In today’s lesson, God speaks of bringing Israel back to her original calling and purpose. This would be accomplished through the nation of Israel and focused upon God’s Servant, the Lord’s Messiah. The scope and vision of what the Savior would do is enunciated by God: rescue people, lead them home, and show unending mercy. The Servant of the Lord is made a light for the nations so that God’s salvation may reach to the ends of the earth.

Messiah is more than a Jewish thing. The Christian tradition discerns Jesus as the Servant, the Savior of both Jews, and Gentiles – Christ is given to reach the entire planet. The incarnation of Christ was meant for more than gathering Israel together, as if it were some sort of Bill Gaither Homecoming tour. Rather, Messiah’s place and power is so significant that it is to be shared with everyone in the world.  Although Israel was to be a holy entity and separate from the surrounding culture, their mandate had always been to be a light to the nations.

This has great import for Christ’s Church and every individual believer in Jesus. The church is much more than a country club which only caters to club functions and members. The church is a missional community with an outward focus, as well. It has always been God’s vision to reach the nations. The Lord wants more than one group of people; God wants everyone. Along with caring for its own, the church is designed as a missionary enterprise which puts significant resources into shining the light of Christ to every nook and cranny of creation.

However, we are a wounded people living in a culture whose first response to differing voices is to accuse, attack, and injure. Our hurts are carried by all of us collectively and personally, and it gives rise to bitterness, isolation, and resentment. When our hope runs dry, we become marked by cynicism, apathy, and escapism.

The vision of Isaiah gives us an alternative approach. Reflection on God’s mercy, salvation, and loving guidance leads to repentance; repentance of our unholy thoughts, words, and deeds leads to a restoration of our true calling as missionaries of faith, hope, and love to the broken world around us. Restoration brings healing of the stresses and anxieties that plague our planet, and ourselves. 

Since God has a missionary heart, all of God’s people are missionaries to the world. It behooves each believer, then, to be taught, trained, and led into God’s restorative mission to the nations. Let us build caring relationships and extend loving actions both to those within the church and toward those outside of Christian fellowship so that God’s intentions are carried out. For we know that not one person on planet earth is forgotten by God.

Restoring God, you bring us back to close relation and fellowship so that we might extend your gracious purposes throughout the world.  Revive us again, God, so that we can hear your call to the nations through our Savior, Jesus Christ.  Amen.

Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19 – Longing for the Lord

The Hand of God by Korean artist Yongsung Kim

Please listen, O Shepherd of Israel,
    you who lead Joseph’s descendants like a flock.
O God, enthroned above the cherubim,
    display your radiant glory
    to Ephraim, Benjamin, and Manasseh.
Show us your mighty power.
    Come to rescue us!

Turn us again to yourself, O God.
    Make your face shine down upon us.
    Only then will we be saved.
O Lord God of Heaven’s Armies,
    how long will you be angry with our prayers?
You have fed us with sorrow
    and made us drink tears by the bucketful.
You have made us the scorn of neighboring nations.
    Our enemies treat us as a joke.

Turn us again to yourself, O God of Heaven’s Armies.
    Make your face shine down upon us.
    Only then will we be saved….

Strengthen the man you love,
    the son of your choice.
Then we will never abandon you again.
    Revive us so we can call on your name once more.

Turn us again to yourself, O Lord God of Heaven’s Armies.
    Make your face shine down upon us.
    Only then will we be saved. (NLT)

Let us continually keep in mind that the psalms are quite Jewish. Yes, I often refer to the psalms as the Church’s Prayer Book and unabashedly see them through Christian eyes. Yet, the psalter, at its core, are prayers and songs of the Jewish experience.

The deep longings and yearnings of the Jewish people within a constant stream of hardship, difficulty, and persecution give voice to all humanity. In other words, the bearing of the Jewish soul as the people of God is the crying out on behalf of us all.

The Jews know a thing or two about lament. Today’s psalm is a lament, a prayer, longing for God to come and restore Israel, to no longer look upon them with anger.  The people knew in their exposed vulnerability that they needed God.  It is the Lord who would come to save and bring a revitalized nation.

Amid awful circumstances and emotional pain, it can be hard to focus with concentrated prayer. The Jews also help us here because they crafted and arranged the psalms in such a way as to enable and foster recall and memory. So, where many of us Gentiles can be rather more like pagans babbling on in our distress, the Jewish psalms offer us the ability of short, succinct, and staccato prayers. Early Christians called them “breath prayers.” 

Throughout the day we can utter “Stir up your power, O God; come to save us.”  The intention of saying it repeatedly in a day is not to get God’s attention because we already have it. No, the purpose is to connect us with Divine resources for deliverance. The purpose is to be in constant touch and continual communion with the One who can ultimately restore, renew, revitalize, and reform the world with justice and righteousness.  It is to be longing for the flourishing of the earth and its inhabitants again, and to enjoy walking with God in the garden of fellowship, peace, and goodwill. It is to be restored.

Restoration is a beautiful thing. I rarely watch makeover shows on television, but if I am channel surfing and catch an old house which seems best suited for the wrecking ball getting restored to its original charm and beauty, I am hooked.  We as people seem to resonate deeply with things being repaired and rejuvenated to looking brand new again.

Again, the Jewish people go before us, through the psalms, with the vision to see the old become new. Whereas some may get lost in the drab discouragement of a gray and dreary environment, forgetting the original shine of how things once were, Asaph, the consummate Jewish song leader, guided the people in remembering how God’s people enjoyed the covenant and the promises of God.  But over time the relationship was not maintained and cared for; the people gradually slid into disrepair.  Centuries of neglect brought a situation where it seemed the only recourse was to do away with the people and begin again.

I certainly do not want to make God angry. I would much rather learn my lesson from the Jewish experience throughout the millennia and enjoy Divine favor. I would also like this old fallen world to be restored to her original beauty. So, we must come to God – not once – but again and again, over, and over. Like the hammer of perseverance, pounding nail after nail, so we must offer our prayers morning, noon, and night, day after day, crying out to God with the great cry of the Jewish people:  “Restore us, O God; let your face shine, that we may be saved!”

Merciful God of all nations bring restoration to our lives, our families, our faith communities, our workplaces, our human institutions, our neighborhoods, and our shared world. Send your Holy Spirit so that we might enjoy seasons of blessing again.  Restore, renew, revive, and rejuvenate our disordered love.  May your face shine upon us once again through the mighty name of Jesus.  Amen.

How to Handle a Sinner, Part 2

Reconciliation Statue
Reconciliation Statue, placed in the ruins of Coventry Cathedral, England, bombed by the Nazis in World War II.

Being emotionally and/or spiritually wounded by another downright hurts. So, what do we do when it happens? Gratefully, Jesus provided some clear teaching on how to handle a victimizing person. (Matthew 18:15-20)

In part one, we considered the initial step to be taken when a person has been offensive and brought damage to another and/or the community. In their straying from the law of love, we are to respond by speaking to the person privately, to attempt a one-on-one reconciliation and restoration. This effort may be repeated several times over.

These next two steps are only to be undertaken when it has become evident that the person’s intransigence about hurting others will not budge.

The Second Step – Take One or Two Others (Matthew 18:16).

Reconciliation Statue Berlin
Statue outside of the Church of Reconciliation in Berlin, Germany.

“If they will not listen, take one or two others along, so that ‘every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.'” –Jesus

The idea here is not to get a few buddies together who agree with our assessment. Rather, we seek others who know the person and can provide loving and objective help. This upholds the ethics of the Old Testament:

A solitary witness against someone in any crime, wrongdoing, or in any sort of misdeed that might be done is not sufficient. The decision must stand by two or three witnesses. (Deuteronomy 19:15, CEB)

When a person fails to respond to reproof privately, then others need to get involved so that there is not a situation of “he said, she said.”  The witnesses are to help establish the nature of the problem. This is purposely meant to be a rather drawn out process because the goal is restoration. We are to give the person every chance to respond to correction.  People need to be given the grace of time to be effectively wooed back to the flock.

The Third Step – Tell It to the Church (Matthew 18:17-18).

Reconciliation Statue Hiroshima
Reconciliation Statue in Hiroshima, Japan

“If they still refuse to listen, tell it to the church; and if they refuse to listen even to the church, treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector.” –Jesus

If the person ignores the group of witnesses, the group is to report the problem to the church. If the person still refuses to listen, then the person is to be treated like “a pagan or tax collector,” that is, the person is to be excommunicated and treated as though they are an unbeliever who has different needs. Jesus did not mean that we never talk to the person again. It is just the opposite: We communicate to them the need for grace just as we would to anyone.

The sixteenth-century Reformed Confession, the Heidelberg Catechism, took up this this matter (Question and Answer 85):

Q: How is the kingdom of heaven closed and opened by Christian discipline?

            A: According to the command of Christ:

Those who, though called Christians, profess unchristian teachings or live unchristian lives, and after repeated and loving counsel refuse to abandon their errors and wickedness, and after being reported to the church, that is, to its officers, fail to respond also to their admonition – such persons the officers exclude from the Christian fellowship by withholding the sacraments from them, and God himself excludes them from the kingdom of Christ.  Such persons, when promising and demonstrating genuine reform, are received again as members of Christ and of his church.

This approach is also germane with groups of people, churches, or Christian organizations. In the last century, churches around the world ostracized the South African Dutch Reformed Church for their refusal to bend concerning their racism and stance on apartheid.  Restoration did occur.  Not only that, but the Belhar Confession was eventually crafted from this church, a document which stands as a thorough biblical stand against structural racism and racist actions.

The Power of the Small Group (Matthew 18:19-20).

“Again, truly I tell you that if two of you on earth agree about anything they ask for, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them.” –Jesus

Jesus reiterated his point about binding and loosing; opening and closing; banning and forgiving. One of the great Reformation teachings is the priesthood of all believers.  The beauty of this is that we may confess our sins to one another in a close, intimate setting so that the steps do not need be done. Small gatherings of believers coming together to confess sin and pray together is the most powerful setting there is.  If we neglect this, we are missing out on the power of God.

Conclusion

Once upon a time, there were two brothers. Their father had a large farm and when he became too old to work, he called his sons to him. “I am too old to work anymore,” he said. “I will divide my farm in half and give each of you one half. I know that you will always work together and will be good friends.”

When the brothers first started farming on their adjoining farms, they were the best of friends and would share everything together. Then, one day there was an argument between the two brothers, and they stopped speaking to one another. For many years, not a word was spoken between them.

One day, one of the brothers was at his house when a carpenter came to his door and said, “I would like to do some work. Do you have any work that I can do?” The brother thought for a moment and then replied, “I would like for you to build a fence on my property. Build it down near the stream that separates my farm from my brother’s. I do not want to see my brother and I would like for you to build a high fence there. I am going into town and I will return this evening.

Bridge over stream

When he came back that evening, he was shocked to see that the carpenter had not followed his instructions. Instead of building a high fence he built a bridge over the stream. The man walked down to look at the bridge, and as he did, his brother walked toward him from the other side. His brother said, “After all the terrible things I’ve done to you over the years, I can’t believe that you would build a bridge and welcome me back.” He reached out to his brother and gave him a big hug.

The brother then walked back up to his farmhouse to talk to the carpenter. “Can you stay?” he asked. “I have more work for you to do.” The carpenter answered, “I’m sorry but I can’t stay. I have to go, for I have many other bridges to build.”

Sometimes you and I have hurts and wounds from our brothers and sisters in Christ. When that happens, we often build a fence between ourselves and them. We stop talking to them. We do not want to see them. We do not want to be around them. However, Jesus wants something different. Instead of fences, he wants us to build a bridge of love.  He wants us to connect and work it out.

How to Handle a Sinner, Part 1

Christ teaching the disciples
A medieval portrait of Christ teaching his disciples.

We live in a fundamentally broken world.  It is filled with broken people. And broken people tend to hurt each other. None of us are immune.  What do you do when you are hurt?

Jesus had something to say on the subject (Matthew 18:15-20). It would be good to hear him out on it because all of us get hurt at some time or another and we need to know how to handle the offending person. We need to get this right. If we do not, the cycle of pain, hurt, damage, and brokenness gets perpetuated.

Just before Jesus offered some teaching on how to handle a sinner, he a parable about a lost sheep – communicating that he is not willing that any sheep should be lost to the sheepfold (Matthew 18:10-14). The teaching on dealing with a person who wounds us is simply the logical extension of the parable. That is, Jesus told us in clear terms what must be done to bring the straying sheep back into the fold.

When attempting to retrieve a wandering person, the tools of guilt, gossip, nagging, and punishment are not consistent with the gospel of grace. Standing at a distance and lobbing verbal grenades toward an erring person is not mentioned by Jesus as an acceptable means of proceeding with those who have caused us suffering.

Jesus offered a three-step process of gracious intervention and a compassionate confrontation with the aim to rescue and restore. Radical independence has no place in the Church.  Strays must be lovingly pursued, carefully rescued, and gently restored.  Anytime someone wanders from the Lord, they hurt another or a group of people, and that wayfaring sheep’s life gets worse. We are not to add to their misery by going to the extremes of either being obnoxiously passive-aggressive to get them to change, or simply ignoring the person altogether, doing nothing, and just hanging back and licking our own wounds.

What others call an “intervention” Christians call “church discipline.”  It seems to be rarely practiced today, which is one reason why we have growing legions of de-churched people. In this post, I focus on step one of this process, because nine out of ten times this first step takes care of the situation. A subsequent post shall deal with the second and third steps.

Cartoon Matthew 18

The First Step – One on One (Matthew 18:15). 

Here are several observations about this step:

  • Approach the person privately. We are never to confront an individual in a group, having not first talked to the offending person one on one. We do not start with step two because these are progressive steps.  Furthermore, we are to avoid what I call the “Middle School adolescent way” of confrontation by having someone else do it for you and report back.
  • Focus on the sin event. We are to show the person their fault, and not make a list of all the things the person has done wrong in the last ten years; or, talk about how terrible they are. We must stick to the offense.  What is more, confrontation is not to be done simply with something we do not like. A person’s individual idiosyncrasies or personality is just that, and we need to have the maturity to allow people to be who they are.
  • Be vigilant to avoid overreactions. Steer clear of accusing others of wrongdoing based in some disputable matter. Let us be sure to face the person about a clear sin which has been committed. On the contrary, if we tend to dodge conflict at all costs, we must watch for our own denial and rationalization by saying “it wasn’t so bad.” The health of the church, not to mention our own personal well-being, may very well require that we do the risky thing and talk directly to the one who has affronted us.
  • Pay attention to the approach. The manner in which we oppose another person is critical. The bull-in-the-china-shop approach is nothing more than responding to a sin with another sin. For example, rather than saying, “You need to stop and get right with God or you’ll go to hell,” you could say instead, “When you did that I felt sad and upset because I need to be in a place that values love. Will you please stop this unloving action?” In other words, knee-jerk reactions rarely go over well. But well-placed words said in love and wisdom go a long way toward restoration.
  • Confront our brother or sister. No one is to be the self-appointed ethics Nazi for people outside the church.
  • Confrontation is commanded. If we are to take the words of Jesus seriously, this is not a matter which is open for debate on whether we do it or not. We are to take the attitude that I am my brother’s keeper.  I am not to let a person run rampant with their sin over myself or others. When we are abused and offended, we do not wait for the person to come to us. Even as the victim, we are to initiate the reconciliation and restoration. “Go” to the person, Jesus said. Face-to-face is the way, without reliance on email or voice mail.  It is to be a conversation, not a drive-by comment or accusation.
  • Confrontation is not negotiation. This is a matter of restoring a person who has sinned.  Having differing positions on certain issues in a church or Christian community is a matter for negotiating, not confronting.
  • Do it more than once. This first can (and should) be repeated many times over. The goal is restoration, not get-this-step-out-of-the-way-so-I-can-see-you-get-in-trouble attitude.

Jesus did not invent something new with his teaching but upheld and restated Old Testament ethics about our attitudes in reproving others:

Do not secretly hate your neighbor. If you have something against him, get it out into the open; otherwise you are an accomplice in his guilt. Do not seek revenge or carry a grudge against any of your people. Love your neighbor as yourself. I am God.” (Leviticus 19:17-18, MSG).

In most situations, this first step takes care of the issue and mends the problem with a genuinely restored relationship. If, however, this does not occur, yet other steps ought to be taken. These will be handled in the next post.

May the grace of the Lord Jesus, the love of God our heavenly Father, and the encouragement of the Holy Spirit be with you, today and always. Amen.