Come, let us return to the Lord. He has torn us to pieces but he will heal us; he has injured us but he will bind up our wounds. After two days he will revive us; on the third day he will restore us, that we may live in his presence. Let us acknowledge the Lord; let us press on to acknowledge him. As surely as the sun rises, he will appear; he will come to us like the winter rains, like the spring rains that water the earth.
“What can I do with you, Ephraim? What can I do with you, Judah? Your love is like the morning mist, like the early dew that disappears. Therefore I cut you in pieces with my prophets, I killed you with the words of my mouth— then my judgments go forth like the sun. For I desire mercy, not sacrifice, and acknowledgment of God rather than burnt offerings.” (NIV)
My favorite word in all Holy Scripture is the Hebrew word chesed. It is such a rich word that no one English word can capture its depth. So, chesed is translated in various ways across English translations of the Bible as mercy, grace, steadfast love, covenant loyalty, kindness, compassion and more. It is no wonder, then, that since chesed marks the character and activity of God, the Lord very much desires people to reflect this same stance toward others.
In today’s Old Testament lesson, God was calling and wooing wayward people to return to a divine life of closeness with the Lord. God demonstrated chesed by not putting the people away, like a spouse outright divorcing an unfaithful partner, but committed to loving the Israelites even when they were unlovely.
At all times, the response God wants is not simply going through the motions of outward worship. Ritual practices mean little if there is no heart behind them. The Lord longs for people to demonstrate both fidelity and fealty through mercy and a steadfast love to God and neighbor. Both our work and our worship are to be infused with divine mercy.
God deeply desires a close relationship with humanity and is profoundly pained when people whore after other gods to meet their needs and love them. Hosea’s prophecy is an impassioned plea for all persons to find their true fulfillment and enjoyment in a committed loving divine/human union, like a marriage.
In Christian readings of Hosea’s prophecy, repentance means accepting God’s chesed through Jesus Christ. The believer is to allow the character of God to rule and reign in their heart so that love and commitment come flowing out in words, actions, thoughts, and dispositions. Mercy finds its highest expression in the person and work of Jesus. Thus, Advent is a season of anticipating the great love and mercy of God through the incarnation of Christ.
It is no wonder, then, that Jesus lifted Hosea’s prophecy as a treasured principle of operation when asked why he deliberately made connections with “questionable” people:
While Jesus was having dinner at Matthew’s house, many tax collectors and sinners came and ate with him and his disciples. When the Pharisees saw this, they asked his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” On hearing this, Jesus said, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.” (Matthew 9:10-12, NIV)
And when confronted about “questionable” activities Jesus appealed to the same source of Hosea’s prophecy:
“Look! Your disciples are doing what is unlawful on the Sabbath.” Jesus answered, “Haven’t you read what David did when he and his companions were hungry? He entered the house of God, and he and his companions ate the consecrated bread—which was not lawful for them to do, but only for the priests. Or haven’t you read in the Law that the priests on Sabbath duty in the temple desecrate the Sabbath and yet are innocent? I tell you that something greater than the temple is here. If you had known what these words mean, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the innocent.” (Matthew 12:2-7, NIV)
One can never go wrong with mercy and grace. If in doubt between whether to judge another or show mercy, the Christian’s choice is clear. Grace and love create connections – reconnecting the disconnected. The heart of true Christian spirituality is a deep kinship with the divine. Whenever that relation is broken or severed, it is vital to restore it. The means of doing so is not judgment but mercy.
Chesed is more than a word; it is a way of life. God wants mercy. Grace is the Lord’s divine will. So, let us today receive the forgiveness of Jesus and devote ourselves to prayer and works of love which come from a heart profoundly touched by grace. May the result be healing of that which has been broken, and reconciled relationships with others.
Merciful and loving God, the One who shows amazing grace, forgive us for our wanderings away from the divine life. Return us, again, to the grace of Jesus Christ our Savior so that our hearts will be renewed and aflame with love for others. In the Name of the Father, Son, and Spirit, the Great Three in One. Amen.
Christ’s Church is not so much made up of saints or sinners as it is made up of saintly sinners and sinning saints. The Church is at the same time both beautiful and ugly, holy, and wicked, full of faith and full of fear. The Body of Christ is the place of spiritual sensitivity as well as a den of depravity. So, anyone searching for a squeaky-clean church on a nice upward path of success with everything done to perfection and where no one ever gets hurt or unhappy… it does not exist; and, it never did.
Jesus stands alongside his imperfect people, despite their faults and egotism. Jesus intimately knows our damaged emotions and our open putrid spiritual abscesses. Yet, he treats us with mercy because he never tires of rehabilitating and reforming his Church.
Christ’s disciple, Peter, is the poster child for all the mixed motives and imperfect following of God we experience. For example, Peter stepped out of the boat in great faith and walked on the water, only to begin sinking because of his great fear. It was Peter who made a bold and right confession of faith, and then turned around here in our story for today and bought into Satan’s agenda. And Jesus was right there next to Peter all the way. Christ both rebukes and loves, all the while never abandoning us, but always working in and through us to accomplish his kingdom purposes.
Here is what we need to know or be reminded of today: Following Jesus involves pain and sacrifice because we live in a broken mixed-up world, and, on top of it, Christ’s Church is still imperfect and in the process of becoming holy. If we will admit it, we are all like Peter – a little devil who needs to get in line behind Jesus. (Matthew 16:21-28)
We all, at times, get frustrated and/or disgusted with the whole church thing. We can whine and complain and even avoid it. Or, we can commit to taking up our cross, and give our lives for Jesus Christ. We can choose to put love into the church where love is not, even when we do not feel loved. Priest and professor, Ron Rollheiser, once gave the following analogy about staying together around Jesus:
Imagine that the family is home for Christmas, but your spouse is sulking, you are fighting being tired and angry, your seventeen year old son is restless and doesn’t want to be there, your aging mother isn’t well and you are anxious about her, your uncle Charlie is batty as an owl… and everyone is too lazy or selfish to help you prepare the dinner. You are ready to celebrate but your family is anything but a Hallmark card. All their hurts and hang-ups are not far from the surface, but you are celebrating Christmas and, underneath it all, there is joy present. A human version of the messianic banquet is taking place and a human family is meeting around Christ’s birth….
In the same way, here we are, the community of the redeemed. We gather in our imperfect way, a crazy mix of sinner and saint. But we gather in and around Jesus – and that makes all the difference. There is a reason we are here on this earth, a reason much bigger than all our dysfunctional ways and dyspeptic attitudes. Jesus Christ is building-up the people of God and he will keep doing it until the end of the age. In other words, Jesus is not quite finished with us yet; we still have some things to learn about the need for sacrifice.
The need for sacrifice by Jesus. (Matthew 16:21-23)
Jesus stated openly and in detail what must happen. It was necessary for Christ to suffer deeply and die a cruel death; it was God’s will and plan. Yet, good ol’ Peter was not down for this plan, at all. He took Jesus aside and rebuked him, believing him to be off his rocker for even suggesting such a terrible scenario. Jesus, however, turned the tables on Peter and rebuked him right back. Essentially, what Jesus said is that being Christ-centered without being cross-centered is satanic.
The error of Peter was that he presumed to know what was best for Jesus. He believed the suffering of the cross would “never” happen. Peter’s perceptions were dim and limited; he did not clearly see how broken the world really is and how much it would take to heal it. Jesus needed to offer himself as a sacrifice for the sins of the entire planet.
Sometimes, like Peter, we might think that the way I see and the way I perceive is the way things really are, or, at least, how they should be. Peter had been walking with Jesus for a few years, watching and enjoying his ministry of teaching, healing, and extending compassion. It was all good for Peter, and, therefore in his mind, it should not change. Peter wanted to hold this moment forever. After all, why try and fix something that is not broken? Oh, but broken the world is – so much so that it required the ultimate sacrifice.
Just because it was good for Peter did not mean it was good for everybody or should always be this way. If Peter were to have his way, we would all be in hell right now; it would not have been good for us. We, like Peter, are finite humans with limited understanding and perceptions. We can easily slip into a satanic mode of believing that because something is going fine for me that everyone else is doing okay, too. I like it, I want it, so what is the problem?
The problem is that we too easily look at life through narrowly selfish lenses, and then cannot see other people’s needs; cannot perceive the lost world around us with any sense of reality; cannot see that Jesus has an agenda very different from our own. Our limited perceptions come out in saying things like, “Oh, she is just depressed because she is avoiding responsibility.” “People on government welfare are lazy.” “He’s addicted because he doesn’t want to help himself.” “They’re demonstrating on the streets because they are a bunch of malcontents.” These, and a legion of statements like it, betray a satanic worldview devoid of grace and a compulsive need to find blame, believing that if there is personal suffering there must be personal sin.
In truth, we are all part of one human family, and we are all in this together; one person’s joys are our joys; one person’s struggles are our struggles. We really are our brother’s keeper. The detachment we can have toward other human beings is completely foreign to the words of Jesus. The Christian life involves suffering, and Jesus invites us to follow him in his way of sacrifice.
The need for sacrifice by the followers of Jesus. (Matthew 16:24-28)
There is a way to reverse demonic thinking. Jesus issues an invitation to practice self-denial, to fall in line behind him, and walk with him in his suffering. Self-denial is not so much doing something like giving up sweets for Lent as it is giving up on ourselves as our own masters. It is the decision to make the words and ways of Jesus the guiding direction for our lives. It is the choice to quit holding onto the way I think things ought to be, and to take the time to listen to Jesus.
The logic of Jesus is relentless. Life comes through death, so, we must give up our lives to find them. It does us no good to adulterate our lives by serving the gods of success and perfectionism. Jesus invites us to quit our moonlighting job with the world and go all in with him. Only in this way will we truly find life.
Jesus was saying more than just submitting to suffering – we are to embrace it. In doing so, we will find reward and joy. For those familiar with this path, they can tell you that suffering is a blessing because they have found the true purpose and meaning of life.
Few people have suffered as much as the nineteenth-century missionary medical doctor to Africa, David Livingstone. He was a pioneer explorer who opened the interior of Africa to the outside world. He had two reasons for doing so: To be able to take the good news of Christ’s suffering to the African people; and, to open Africa to legitimate trade so that the illicit slave trade would end.
Dr. Livingstone’s hand was once bitten and maimed by a lion; his wife died while on the mission field; he was most often alone on his travels; the one house he built was destroyed in a fire; he was typically wracked with dysentery and fever, or some other illness in the jungle. Someone once commented to him that he had sacrificed a lot for going in the way of Jesus. Livingstone’s response was, “Sacrifice? The only sacrifice is to live outside the will of God.” When asked what helped him get through so much hardship, he said that the words of Jesus to take up his cross were always ringing in his ears.
We may believe we must watch out for ourselves; that we need to push for our personal preferences; that if I accept this invitation to follow Jesus in the way of self-denial I will be miserable and people will walk all over me. Such thoughts are demonic whispers in our ears.
There are two ways of thinking and approaching the Christian life: There is the way which believes success, perfection, and a pain-free life is the evidence of God’s working; while the other way believes that suffering is right and necessary to connect with God and to be in solidarity with those who suffer.
Suffering, rejection, and execution did not fit into Peter’s church growth plan or factor into his view of Messiah. So, I will say it plainly: We do not exist only for ourselves. We do not exist to be a spiritual country club. We do exist to follow Jesus in his path of sacrifice and suffering for a world of people who desperately need to know the grace of forgiveness and the mercy of Christ. Jesus died. We are to die to ourselves. Christ lives; so, we are to live a new life. In God’s upside-down kingdom, joy comes through suffering. We are to follow Jesus as the mix of sinners and saints that we are.
Peter eventually learned his lesson from Jesus. After Christ’s resurrection and ascension, Peter caught fire with courage and boldness – which landed him in hot water with the Jewish ruling council. As a result, he was severely whipped and flogged and told to keep in line. Peter’s response demonstrates how far he had come. He left the experience rejoicing that he had been counted worthy of suffering disgrace for the Name of Jesus Christ. (Acts 5:41)
“If there is a meaning in life at all, then there must be a meaning in suffering. Suffering is an ineradicable part of life, even as fate and death. Without suffering and death, human life cannot be complete.” –Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl
Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart. (NIV)
We are moving inexorably to the cross of Christ. Along the way we face opposition, ridicule, misunderstanding, and betrayal. And, yet, today’s New Testament reading informs us that this is initiated, motivated, and animated because of joy. The path leading to the cross and the cross of Christ itself was painful in every sense of the word. This doesn’t sound joyful at all. There’s no definition in any dictionary which includes suffering and shame with the word joy.
Jesus did not relish in being hurt by others because pain with no purpose is nothing but tragic despair. Rather, Jesus clearly understood what the end of his suffering would accomplish: the saving of many lives.
Trying to make sense of this great sacrifice on our behalf can be mind-blowing. No earthly illustration or word-picture can begin to adequately capture the idea. Yet, maybe we can understand focusing the necessary discipline, effort, endurance, and pain in order to accomplish a goal. In other words, the most significant and important goals of our lives require a great deal of blood, sweat, and tears to realize. In a former life I was a cross country runner (back far enough for Sherman to set the way-back machine). When I was running on a road or a golf course, I would sometimes get that very nasty and sharp pain in my side while running. It is called a side cramp, or side stitch. If you have never experienced it, the pain feels like an intense stabbing, as if someone were taking a knife and twisting it inside you. Runners know there’s only one thing to do when this occurs: Keep running through the pain and it will subside in a few minutes. To stop running only exacerbates and prolongs the hurt, not to mention losing a race.
Jesus endured the cross knowing he was going to experience terrible excruciating pain. He also knew that not facing the shame of it and avoiding the agony would only make things worse; it wouldn’t take care of the problem of sin. Jesus persevered through the foulness and degradation of the cross for you and me. The pain was worth it to him. Christ did not circumvent the cross; he embraced it so that the result would be people’s deliverance from death and hell. The end game of his redemptive work was joy over deposing the ruler of this dark world and obliterating obstacles to people’s faith.
Suffering often does not fit into our equation of the Christian life; and, yet, it needs to. Since Jesus bled and died for us, it is our privilege to follow him along the way of suffering. Holy Week is a time to reflect and remember on such a great sacrifice, and to consider our Christian lives in the face of such great love.
Gracious Lord Jesus, I give you eternal thanks for your mercy toward me through the cross. It is a small thing for me to follow you even it means great suffering on my part. My life is yours. Use it as you will, through the power of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Click There Is A Redeemer by Crossings Worship to continue the contemplation on the redemptive events of Jesus.