The Divine Warrior (Isaiah 59:15b-21)

The Lord looked and was displeased
    that there was no justice.

He saw that there was no one,
    he was appalled that there was no one to intervene;
so his own arm achieved salvation for him,
    and his own righteousness sustained him.
He put on righteousness as his breastplate,
    and the helmet of salvation on his head;
he put on the garments of vengeance
    and wrapped himself in zeal as in a cloak.
According to what they have done,
    so will he repay
wrath to his enemies
    and retribution to his foes;
    he will repay the islands their due.
From the west, people will fear the name of the Lord,
    and from the rising of the sun, they will revere his glory.
For he will come like a pent-up flood
    that the breath of the Lord drives along.

“The Redeemer will come to Zion,
    to those in Jacob who repent of their sins,”
declares the Lord.

“As for me, this is my covenant with them,” says the Lord. “My Spirit, who is on you, will not depart from you, and my words that I have put in your mouth will always be on your lips, on the lips of your children and on the lips of their descendants—from this time on and forever,” says the Lord. (New International Version)

The Lord inhabits a lot of roles as God: Creator and Sustainer, Father and Mother, Helper and Healer, Sovereign and King, Shepherd and Spirit, and much more. In today’s Old Testament lesson, we see God as the Divine Warrior and Redeemer.

Readers of the New Testament will pick up on the warrior language in Isaiah’s prophecy (Ephesians 6:10-20). The Divine Warrior readies for battle by putting on armor: a breastplate of righteousness and the helmet of salvation. The Lord prepares to intervene, to make war on injustice, because there are no earthly human warriors willing to eradicate unrighteousness, redeem the oppressed, and establish deliverance for the needy.

The “bystander effect,” or “bystander apathy,” is a social psychology term that refers to cases in which individuals do not offer any means of help to a victim when other people are present. In experiment after experiment over the past fifty years, social psychologists have found that the more bystanders there are, the less likely any one of them will help. 

For example, researchers Bibb Latané and Judith Rodin staged an experiment in 1969 around a woman in distress. 70% of the people who were alone called out or went to help the woman after they believed she had fallen and was hurt. Yet, when there were other people around, only 40% offered help.

The social psychologists found that individuals find it far too easy to stand with their hands in their pockets, whenever there are other people around that could help and do what is right and just. 

The Lord your God is with you, the Mighty Warrior who saves. (Zephaniah 3:17, NIV)

The Lord noticed that justice had disappeared. God was plenty displeased with the lack of justice – and became downright disgusted when no one was doing anything about it. 

“Rationalization is a process not of perceiving reality, but of attempting to make reality fit one’s emotions.”

Ayn Rand

The rationalizations for not becoming involved and avoiding the work of justice in the world are legion: 

  • “Someone else can do it better than me.” 
  • “But what if I screw up?”
  • “I don’t have time for this.”
  • “How could I possibly make any difference?”
  • “That’s not my job.”
  • “They made their own bed, now they can sleep in it.”
  • “I don’t know what to do.”

God puts the responsibility for ensuring that everyone has what they need to live and thrive on us. We truly are our brother’s and sister’s keeper.

So, let’s come back to the Divine Warrior image in the New Testament. Christians are to take up the armor of God, not only to protect themselves from evil, but also to fight the dark forces that keep people locked in systems of injustice. Read the following text from the perspective of ensuring justice for the common good of all people:

Finally, be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. Put on the full armor of God, so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes.For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. 

Therefore put on the full armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand. Stand firm then, with the belt of truth buckled around your waist, with the breastplate of righteousness in place,and with your feet fitted with the readiness that comes from the gospel of peace. In addition to all this, take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one. Take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God. (Ephesians 6:10-20, NIV)

The under-privileged, the under-represented, the under-served, the disadvantaged, the deprived, the indigent, and many more groups of people exist because of ignorance and apathy toward their needs. Everyone, including you and me, need to own this and not rationalize why we cannot participate.

The prophet Isaiah lets us know that none of us are anonymous; we have all been given gifts as the people of God in order to serve the greater good. 

The Lord dispenses grace and glory primarily through active people who forsake being bystanders and respond to God’s call on their lives. 

Let’s not bring out the Divine Warrior because of our own negligence. Instead, let’s be attentive to justice, righteousness, and redemption. Perhaps then God will get a more positive press in the public square.

God of justice and righteousness, you care about the people of this world receiving the things they need to live and flourish in life. Inspire and empower all of your people, including me, to spread a spirit of service in our local communities, churches, workplaces, and everywhere we live and go, through Jesus Christ our Lord in the power of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

A Parable On Being Right with God (Luke 18:9-14)

The Tax Collector and the Pharisee by Peter Gallen

To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else, Jesus told this parable: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’

“But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’

“I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” (New International Version)

There’s a lot to observe in Christ’s parable for today. Notice six observations of the story….

1. We Cannot Make Ourselves Right with God

I’m convinced that most Gentile Christians, standing two millennia apart from Christ’s telling of this parable, are much too hard on the Jewish Pharisees: “Well, I’m certainly glad that I am not like the Pharisee in this story!” so many tell themselves. It seems to me the Pharisees get a bad rap because of our own predilection to justify ourselves.

After all, we can only really criticize something we are already familiar with.

A temptation which every individual and community faces is the seduction toward self-justification, instead of being justified by God.

Way back in the day, when I made treadmill belts for a living, I was in charge of quality control. It was my job to make sure that the quality department provided the shipping department with a finished product, free of defects, and could stand the test of continual use. I justified the belt as being a treadmill belt of integrity; the belt did not, nor could not, justify itself, hide or fix its flaws, or make itself right.

To think that a treadmill belt could justify itself is in the same sort of crazy that believes we can make ourselves right. No, it is God alone who justifies the sinner.

The paradox of Christ’s parable is that the real sinners are those who claim to be righteous, while the truly righteous are those who recognize they cannot justify themselves and need God to make them right.

2. We Need to Be Honest about the Right Thing

In order to hear the good news about God’s ability to justify and make right, we must also hear the bad news about why we need justification to begin with. An honest look into the mirror reveals that we have been hiding behind a cosmetic façade of self-justification.

Our illusions and delusions need to be confronted and shattered. Because only then can we receive grace and realize the peace and harmony of God’s justification.

Since God justifies, I don’t have to!

I don’t need to defend myself, make myself look better than I am, nor fool myself into believing that the false façade is the true self.

The parable of Jesus is a contrast between the Pharisee who justifies himself, and the tax collector who looks to God alone for his justification.

3. The Put-Together Guy Wants to Make Himself Right

Jesus uses a Pharisee as a character in the parable because the guy represented someone who everyone else looks up to as the model of a spiritual and religious person. Christ is inviting his hearers to look beyond the façade of what we see with our physical eyes.           

We need to use our spiritual eyes to notice below the surface. Look at the attitude. The smug self-justifying disposition is flat-out sin. What’s more, self-justification is a root of all sorts of sins.

Judging ourselves to be right means that others are wrong. That attitude creates division, separates people into bad and good, fosters disharmony, and is an affront to God. 

To try and obtain what is already provided by grace is plain old-fashioned sin.

4. We’re Obsessed with the Right Lines

Adam and Eve were told by God that they could eat from any tree in the garden but were given strict instructions not to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. (Genesis 2:15-17) So, why avoid that particular tree?

Because it was a tree which spiritually and socially blinds people. Adam and Eve ate from it and their eyes were “opened” to a different reality – which was actually a “closed” view of reality that changed the way humanity deals with one another. From that point forward, people began drawing lines down the middle and placing themselves on the “good” side while vilifying those on the other side, the “bad” side.

“Apple Picking,” the fall of Adam and Eve, by Vittorio Canta

Adam and Eve immediately began justifying their actions, their attitudes, and their behavior. (Genesis 3:8-13) Adam drew a line: “That woman, Eve, gave me the fruit; she’s on the other side; it’s her fault!” Eve drew a line: “The serpent made me do it; that wasn’t really me, I’m basically good….” And ever since, the quest of making ourselves right has never stopped….

Today, we draw all sorts of lines. A popular religious line is this: “We’re good; they’re bad. Our theology is right, everybody else’s is wrong. The Bible says….” (insert a kooky interpretation of Scripture, based in self-justification and separation of people into good and bad groups)

People draw class lines, race lines, gender lines, ethnic lines, economic lines. We want clean lines, vertical lines, horizontal lines, perpendicular lines, thick lines, thin lines, any kind of line; just give me a line! Let’s go line dancing. Maybe take an airline. There are offensive lines and defensive lines. By the way, what’s the line on the Packers? We even judge the lines themselves: Long lines, short lines, front lines, back lines, and DMV lines are clearly evil, right!?

Why are we so obsessed with drawing lines? So that we can take self-justifying sides. Violence, war, and most every other sin of the world comes from the original sin project of trying to make ourselves right: “I’m okay; you’re not.”

The Pharisee (really a representative of us all) drew a very clear line between himself and the despised sinful tax collector. Notice that self-justification always compares itself with others. Those who obsessively draw lines are compulsively concerned about other people; they believe they have a right to know what’s going on with them. They remain vigilant to keep the lines drawn and distinguish themselves from those on the other side.

5. God Is On the Other Side of the Right Line

The Pharisee found that every time he drew a line, God was on the other side with the “sinners.” That makes perfect biblical sense. If God alone justifies sinners and makes them right; and if Jesus identifies with them in his life, death, and resurrection; then God is to be found on the other side of our line-drawing.  

A self-justified person sees no need for God’s justification. Therefore, God is not on their side; God is on the other side, justifying sinners by making them right.

6. The Unraveled Guy Wants To Be Made Right

“O God, Be Merciful To Me, A Sinner,” by Ronald Raab

The tax collector’s only concern was for God to show him mercy because he is a sinner. In contrast to the proud attitude of the Pharisee, the tax collector, a sinner by anyone’s definition, humbled himself and sought justification from God alone.

  • Justification by God makes us right and:
  • Lifts the curse upon humanity and reverts everything back to its original design. (Revelation 22:1-5)
  • Erases the lines. (Romans 4:7-8)
  • Restores our souls are and strengthens our faith. (Acts 16:5; Romans 4:20)
  • Enables us to rest in Christ’s finished work. (John 19:28-30)
  • Does not condemn us. (Romans 8:1-2)
  • Eliminates comparisons because Christ is sufficient for us. (Colossians 2:13-14)
  • Replaces the anxiety and fear about how we look to others with the contentment and satisfaction of God’s love in Christ. (1 John 4:16-18)

Conclusion

Self-justification separates us from people and creates distance and division. But God’s justification connects people in love and crosses the arbitrary lines created by others.

The bad news: Many religious folk, when confronted with their self-justifying attitudes, do not change. Instead, they label the person as bad and place the offending person on the other side of their line so that they can maintain their façade of righteousness.

The good news: Jesus can be found on the other side of the line because justification is a gift. Yet, until we go to him, outside our little camp, we will continue in vain to make ourselves look good and be on the right side of everything while making others look bad.

The good and the right is to humbly – and with much flavor – cry out to God for mercy because only the Lord can save us from our plight.

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner. 

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner. 

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner, and grant me your peace.

Just and right God, by your mercy we were created, and by your mercy you redeemed us through your Son, the Lord Jesus. Your mercy is the light by which all people – both sinner and saint – return to you. Your divine justice and your divine mercy exist together so that you refuse to punish us as we deserve.

Lord Jesus, it was not enough for you to take on our humanity; you died for us as well. So, we humbly and gratefully receive your gracious deliverance from sin, death, and hell. Amen.

Persevere Through Adversity (Psalm 129)

Painting of Jerusalem by Alex Levin

From my earliest youth my enemies have persecuted me.
    Let all Israel repeat this:
From my earliest youth my enemies have persecuted me,
    but they have never defeated me.
My back is covered with cuts,
    as if a farmer had plowed long furrows.
But the Lord is good;
    he has cut me free from the ropes of the ungodly.

May all who hate Jerusalem
    be turned back in shameful defeat.
May they be as useless as grass on a rooftop,
    turning yellow when only half grown,
ignored by the harvester,
    despised by the binder.
And may those who pass by
    refuse to give them this blessing:
“The Lord bless you;
    we bless you in the Lord’s name.” (New Living Translation)

The Jewish people know a thing or two about perseverance through suffering; they’ve been enduring it for millennia. If we let them, they can show us a better way of facing adversity.

It seems to me that we modern Gentiles could learn from our Jewish brothers and sisters. We Westerners tend toward burying the past, putting things behind us, and forgetting all the bad things which occurred back there. But the Psalms, a wonderful depository of Jewish thought and practice, will have none of that approach.

Today’s Psalm comes from a group known as the “Psalms of Ascent.” (Psalms 120-134) These were sung by ancient Jewish worshipers as they made the journey up to Jerusalem for the Feast of Tabernacles.

As the pilgrims walked together on their ascent to the great city, the experience of collectively singing and worshiping made the people feel united in joy, purpose, and sorrow. Remembering was central to that sense of solidarity.

The Jewish people have been attacked by countless enemies, not only throughout the Old Testament, but also throughout their long history. Empires tend to not like Jews because Jews hold to their own set of laws and worship practices – which seem to always come into conflict with what some Emperor, Dictator, or Tyrant wants. So, they try to be rid of Jews, like plowing a field to break up the stubborn hard ground of Yahweh worship. The Jewish people end up being treated, literally, like dirt.

“The attempt to eliminate the people of God was an attempt to eradicate the presence of God from the human situation. The fact that after Auschwitz the Jewish people still lives and can still affirm its faith is the most powerful testimony that God still lives.”

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, Crisis and Covenant

God will deliver… eventually. Whether Jew or Christian, there will always be enemies to the faith. And sadly, the history of Christianity includes their own brand of persecuting Jews. *Sigh*

Haters, the Psalm hopes, will be like grass in shallow soil: They may sprout quickly, but will also wither quickly and blow away to be gone forever.

The evil of this fallen world is terrible and ugly; but it isn’t permanent. Therefore, we need patience and perseverance through the suffering and adversity to realize the deliverance.

And as much as aggressive bullies try to wipe out those not conforming to their ways, the Lord simply brings in a harvest of righteousness, despite it all.

Even though the Psalms of Ascent were written long ago by people living in a time and place very different from ours, yet they express the emotions we all feel, which makes them helpful for our journey through life, as well.

Although none of us delights in persecution, pain, and struggle, we can take the stance of embracing our hard circumstances because suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not put us to shame, since love is the force that binds the world together. (Romans 5:3-8)

“When two friends climb a hill, the hill seems less steep than if they climbed it alone.”

Sherri Mandell

Oftentimes, it is inside the pain that we begin to become one with our own vulnerable humanity. And that humble humanity is where great courage, great creativity, and great work germinates within our spirits and cultivates the ground of this world, growing to produce faith, hope, and love.

Everyone facing adversity knows how hard it is to keep going without seeing the goal. Like the farmer, we must expectantly wait till the harvest. There is nothing we can do to speed up the process and go straight from planting to harvest. It takes time and plenty of patience. Grumbling and complaining about how long it is taking will not make it go any faster.

Perseverance in the face of hardship is a major pathway to realizing a holy life. Consider the ancient prophets:

  • Jeremiah was faithful to proclaim God’s message yet was thrown into a cistern and left for dead. Yet, he was delivered from it. (Jeremiah 38:1-28)
  • Micaiah was faithful to declare truth to King Zedekiah, who then promptly imprisoned him, even though the king asked for God’s message. (1 Kings 22:24-27)
  • Daniel was faithful to pray consistently to the one true God and was thrown into the lion’s den to be killed. But the Lord saved him. (Daniel 6:1-28)

The prophets all suffered for doing the right thing and did not waver in their commitment to the Lord. Through their troubles they learned to trust God and draw near to the Lord. The adversity strengthened, not weakened, their faith.

What’s more, consider the Old Testament character of Job, who is Exhibit A of perseverance through grinding hardship. Job had it all; and he lost it all… except his faith. Job tenaciously held onto righteousness, despite his awful physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual pain. And he eventually came through it, restored and whole.

We are to keep going in our faith and not give up – and the Psalms of Ascent can help us in our endurance.

The soul would have no rainbow if the eyes had no tears. We live in a time when we will either sink or swim – there is no in-between. God’s celestial shore is within sight; don’t miss it by getting discouraged by all the fog. 

Hang in there, my friend. There is good reason to do so.

Isaiah 5:1-7 – A Parable of the Vineyard

I will sing for the one I love
    a song about his vineyard:
My loved one had a vineyard
    on a fertile hillside.
He dug it up and cleared it of stones
    and planted it with the choicest vines.
He built a watchtower in it
    and cut out a winepress as well.
Then he looked for a crop of good grapes,
    but it yielded only bad fruit.

“Now you dwellers in Jerusalem and people of Judah,
    judge between me and my vineyard.
What more could have been done for my vineyard
    than I have done for it?
When I looked for good grapes,
    why did it yield only bad?

Now I will tell you
    what I am going to do to my vineyard:
I will take away its hedge,
    and it will be destroyed;
I will break down its wall,
    and it will be trampled.

 I will make it a wasteland,
    neither pruned nor cultivated,
    and briers and thorns will grow there.
I will command the clouds
    not to rain on it.”

The vineyard of the Lord Almighty
    is the nation of Israel,
and the people of Judah
    are the vines he delighted in.
And he looked for justice, but saw bloodshed;
    for righteousness, but heard cries of distress. (New International Version)

God is the owner of the vineyard. Israel and Judah are the beloved. The Lord graciously chose them, gave them divine promises, and set his steadfast love upon them. God sang over them with affection and took care of them.

The Lord God put time, effort, and love into the relationship. God anticipated good things, looked forward to a bright future, and expected a flowering of justice and righteousness from the people.

It didn’t happen. The relationship went sour. Nothing but rotten grapes.

God builds. God gives. God sustains…. And God destructs. God takes away. God ends what he begins.

The Lord didn’t put all that work into the people to have them perpetuate injustice toward the poor and disadvantaged. God didn’t choose Israel so that they would then neglect God’s law by mistreating others and ignoring the right.

The bloodshed of the people was that they squeezed and bled the poor to death. The cries and anguished responses of the needy were ignored. There was no mercy. So, God was not about to idly stand by and let such rotten grapes abuse and ruin the good, the just, and the right.

The relationship between and God and God’s people was an ancient love song that went off key and struck a minor chord. The Lord has extreme love and patience… until he doesn’t. There’s no way the just and right God is going to put up with abusive, ignorant, and bad folks forever.

Jesus had this allegorical image of Isaiah in mind when he spoke in parables about the impossibility of good fruit coming from bad vines and trees, and the necessity of removing dead branches. (Luke 6:43-45; John 15:1-17)

If the grapes are bad, the vine is bad. If the words are hateful, sarcastic, passive-aggressive, manipulative, conniving, racist, hurtful, mean, foolish, and either subtly or overtly abusive, then the person has a dark heart and is need of redemption, not excuses.

Every tree that does not bear good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire. The wicked heart will not be able to speak ill of others and act hatefully with impunity forever. They will be called to account for their abusive words and actions, whether overtly violent, or subtly undermining.

The righteous heart, however, shall experience divine pleasure and reward, as if the careful construction of helpful and building up words with loving deeds wins first-prize at the great heavenly fair.

The good person loves and does not hate. They are so far from harming anyone that they even pray and wish well for their enemies. They pray for blessings on those who curse them. There is an honest striving to speak good words to everyone, regardless of who they are.

The upright heart thinks the best of everyone and holds nothing over someone else’s head. Such a good heart condemns no one, leaving all judgment to God alone. It is patient with the most exasperating of people, praying they might come to their senses and become spiritually healthy.

The righteous are able to use their speech to admonish their neighbor with care and affection. They freely forgive, happily give, liberally encourage, and use their tongue to speak words of life. Indeed, their speech is wise, humble, full of grace, and above all, loving.

The just and right person uses their hands and feet to build good things for others, especially the most vulnerable and needy among us. They willingly meet needs without bitterness or with a begrudging heart.

If there is a problem with words, it will not do to simply change the speech. That’s because it is a heart issue. And the heart must be willing to change and be transformed by sheer mercy.

If there is an issue with actions, it will not do to merely enforce a change in behavior. That’s because it’s a heart problem. And the heart desperately needs to acknowledge sin and repent from evil.

Fortunately, God is the expert on renovating dilapidated hearts and performing effective heart transplants.

Oftentimes something needs to be destroyed for a building to be erected. There always needs to be a death before there can be a resurrection. New life cannot occur without forsaking an old life.

Believers in Jesus are mindful that our life of faith, hope, and love comes from a death. So, we journey with Jesus along the road of suffering, up Calvary, and are crucified with him so that we might rise with him.

This is the way.

It is the way of repentance, of genuine change, of new habits, of Christianity. So now, let’s go to him outside the camp, bearing his shame. We don’t have a permanent city here, but rather we are looking for the city that is still to come. (Hebrews 13:13-14)

May justice, righteousness, and peace be yours in abundance through him who gave himself for us and for our salvation.

Merciful Father, we pray that violence will be overcome by the power of love; that opposition and division give way to reconciliation; and that the desire for power and control be transformed into the desire for forgiveness, justice, and peace.

May peace be in our hearts so that they are open to the action of your divine grace.

May all humanity – especially the poor, the needy, the least among us, and the lost – feel the warmth of your steadfast love and the love of your people toward them.

May the fruit of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control be our breakfast, lunch, and dinner; and may your divine abundance of mercy and justice be scattered throughout our city, our nation, and our world, through Jesus Christ our Lord, in the strength of your Holy Spirit.

Amen.