Deuteronomy 9:1-5 – A Reality Check

Jordan River by Ilan Szekely, 1944

Listen, Israel! Today you will cross the Jordan River to enter and take possession of nations larger and more powerful than you, along with huge cities with fortifications that reach to the sky. These people are large and tall—they are the Anakim. You know and have heard what people say: “Who can stand up to the Anakim?” Know right now that the Lord your God, who is crossing over before you, is an all-consuming fire! He will wipe them out! He will subdue them before you! Then you will take possession of their land, eliminating them quickly, exactly as the Lord told you.

Once the Lord your God has driven them out before you, don’t think to yourself, It’s because I’m righteous that the Lord brought me in to possess this land. It is instead because of these nations’ wickedness that the Lord is removing them before you. You aren’t entering and taking possession of their land because you are righteous or because your heart is especially virtuous; rather, it is because these nations are wicked—that’s why the Lord your God is removing them before you, and because he wishes to establish the promise he made to your ancestors: to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. (Common English Bible)

When my kids were small, I dealt with the issue of sharing, as every parent has to do. Once, two of my girls were fighting over a doll. As I entered the room, one of them quickly said, “She has my doll!” So, I sat her down with me and calmly asked, “Whose doll is it?” “It’s mine!” my daughter cried.

I asked again, “Whose doll is it?” Again, the answer came, “It’s my doll!” I asked yet a third time, “Whose doll is it?” Because this was not our first rodeo together about fighting over dolls and toys, my daughter bowed her head, gave a big sigh, and quietly said, “It’s God’s doll.”

“Yes, it’s God’s doll,” I said. “God is just letting you borrow it for a while and expects you to take good care of it and share his stuff with others.”

Kids often need a reality check of where things come from and who really owns it all. Many times, adults need the very same reality check.

We big people grow up and tend to think we are bigger than we really are. Over the years, we gain misguided notions of our possessions and accomplishments. We believe we did it all through our own skills and character.

Maybe you recognize some of these common notions about our life, work, and ministry:

  • “I worked a long time for my money. I’m not giving it to so-and-so.”
  • My church has a lot of people because we preach the Bible, not like other churches.”
  • “The government takes too much of my hard earned money.”
  • “Here, you can have this couch. I was going to throw it away, anyway. My couch is a nice new one.”
  • “I made a lot of sacrifices for my job. I’m not letting anyone steal my position from me.”
  • “I raised my kids and they’re all doing very well in life. They wouldn’t have made it without me.”
  • “Hey, that’s my yard. Your dog can’t be on it.”
  • “This is my time.”
  • “It’s my car. Don’t touch it.”
  • My way or the highway.”

Those are actual statements Christians have said to me over the years. In their extreme individualism, they believed they were the masters of their own goodness and achievements. In other words, they gave themselves more credit than they really deserved.

A person is proud and selfish not for pursuing their own good but for neglecting their neighbor’s.

It’s far too easy to chalk-up our positions, titles, degrees, jobs, and the good things which come with them as of our own doing. We then believe we are the true owners of all our stuff. Some can even take the next step of believing that if others would just do what I do and think the way I think, then all would be well in the world.

That’s pretty much how Lucifer thought about things. And even after getting cast from heaven, he still exists with the delusion that he didn’t deserve it, as if he were above ever getting treated any other way than like God does.

The reality, however, is that everything and everyone belongs to God. The Lord is the rightful ruler of the universe, and we are not. Every good and perfect thing we have in this life is a gift from a gracious heavenly Father.

Stupidity doesn’t come from a lack of brains or smarts; it’s a result of pride taking over one’s thinking.

Indifference doesn’t have its source in a lack of caring; it comes from believing certain people don’t deserve to have my attention, my stuff, or my time.

Arrogance isn’t an inbred personality trait; it’s the logical end of the successful person’s life who is convinced that everyone ought to adopt their particular set of societal mores, cultural values, political views, and personal disciplines.

Conversely, a person in humble circumstances with little to their name is not necessarily lazy or unwilling to work. And when they have giants in their lives, they can trust the God who specializes in taking down the stupid, the indifferent, and the arrogant.

All things are a gift from the Lord, even the difficult people and hard circumstances we face. They are really opportunities for God to show up and give us precisely what we need.

Everything is a trust from God that we are to steward well, whether it is people, things, or money. They are given to us, not because of any superior spirituality on our part or righteous ingenuity, but because God simply gives it. We have what we have because of God, period.

The appropriate way of stewarding our resources, as well as expressing thanks to God, is through sharing our stuff, our money, our time, and our love with others.

Whose life is it?

We do not presume to come to your Table, O merciful Lord, trusting in our own righteousness, but in your abundant and great mercies. We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under your table; but you are the same Lord whose character is always to have mercy. Grant us, therefore, gracious Lord, so to eat and drink that our sinful bodies may be made clean by his body, and our souls washed through his most precious blood, and that we may evermore dwell in him, and he in us. Amen.

Amos 6:1-8 – Against Complacency

Woe to you who think you live on easy street in Zion,
    who think Mount Samaria is the good life.
You assume you’re at the top of the heap,
    voted the number-one best place to live.
Well, wake up and look around. Get off your pedestal.
    Take a look at Calneh.
Go and visit Great Hamath.
    Look in on Gath of the Philistines.
Doesn’t that take you off your high horse?
    Compared to them, you’re not much, are you?

Woe to you who are rushing headlong to disaster!
    Catastrophe is just around the corner!
Woe to those who live in luxury
    and expect everyone else to serve them!
Woe to those who live only for today,
    indifferent to the fate of others!
Woe to the playboys, the playgirls,
    who think life is a party held just for them!
Woe to those addicted to feeling good—life without pain!
    those obsessed with looking good—life without wrinkles!
They could not care less
    about their country going to ruin.

But here’s what’s really coming:
    a forced march into exile.
They’ll leave the country whining,
    a rag-tag bunch of good-for-nothings.

God, the Master, has sworn, and solemnly stands by his Word.
    The God-of-the-Angel-Armies speaks:

“I hate the arrogance of Jacob.
    I have nothing but contempt for his forts.
I’m about to hand over the city
    and everyone in it.” (The Message)

A fool is one who either cannot or will not see that their personal actions have communal ramifications. Arrogant people are shortsighted, and when there is no immediate consequence to their selfish actions, they quickly assume everything is okay.

Perhaps we are fools – not so much because of any heinous sins – but because of our great indifference toward the mass of humanity across the world, as well as the neighbor across the street.

If there is any foolishness with the Christian, I submit to you that it could likely be because we believers have abjectly avoided the Old Testament minor prophets as some anachronistic judgment of the past which has little to do with living in today’s New Testament grace.

It is high time that Christians, especially Western Christians, take the entirety of their Bibles seriously through a hard examination of the prophet Amos.

“Morally, there is no limit to the concern one must feel for the suffering of human beings. Indifference to evil is worse than evil itself; in a free society, some are guilty, but all are responsible.”

Abraham Joshua Heschel

Those with power and privilege nearly always believe that what is good for themselves is good for everybody else. In their pride, they either cannot or will not look under the ghost of Christmas Present’s robe. The boy Ignorance, and the girl Want, are out-of-sight, out-of-mind, for the foolish person of indifference.

The issue is not one of actually possessing wealth and influence. After all, the Lord God is wealthy and influential beyond anything we can imagine. The real issue is how we have obtained such things and whether we seek to use them for the common good of all people, and not just for myself or people just like me.

It will not do to be a simpleton and toss out flippant phrases such as, “If they want money they can get a job,” “They’re just lazy and unmotivated,” “The government takes plenty from me for those people,” “They could be self-sufficient if they really wanted to,” “They should be happy that I give them a [minimum wage] job,” “The poor are uneducated…addicts…drug seekers…unreliable…” And on the blustering goes, ad infinitum, ad nauseum.

Those, and many more statements like them, are nothing more than mere projections of the privileged few upon the masses. Truth is that addiction, debt, ingratitude, and laziness are marks of the rich and powerful in the same way you can find them anywhere. What’s more, projecting and deflecting are endemic of the mind that either cannot or will not engage in critical thinking and avoid logical fallacies.

Such persons are unaware that their luxurious eating and drinking in the dining room of the Titanic will suddenly be their last meal. Their complacency is their ruin.

Many of us tend to see the sins of others rather than our own sins. So, reading Amos, we may reflexively think of “those people’s sins, back then,” or, the sins of “other people.” Yet, as Jesus suggests in the Sermon on the Mount, when we interpret the law, we should first examine the logs in our own eyes, rather than starting with the slivers in our neighbor’s eye. (Matthew 7:3-5)

The place to begin with giving Amos an honest hearing, is to look inwardly at our own shadow selves. The lack of self-awareness is the beginning of all callousness, complacency, and conceit.

“Unfortunately, there can be no doubt that man is, on the whole, less good than he imagines himself or wants to be. Everyone carries a shadow, and the less it is embodied in the individual’s conscious life, the blacker and denser it is. If an inferiority is conscious, one always has a chance to correct it.”

Carl Jung

There are two practices which can help illumine our inner person, thus opening the way to greater compassion for others:

  1. Listen to your self-talk. What’s going on in your mind? Is it a series of negative thoughts that make you feel like crud? Or do you also consider gratitude and positive thoughts? Take a couple of minutes each day to sit in silence and listen to the tone of your inner voice. It might even help to write down your thoughts so that you can get a better idea of what they are truly like. If we cannot listen to ourselves, we won’t be able to listen to the voice of others – which means we’ll never really understand other people.
  2. Pay attention to your feelings. Emotions are barometers of how we are truly doing, as well as flags which signal what we are supposed to be paying attention to.For example, a warm feeling in your face might mean you’re embarrassed; ‘butterflies’ in your stomach can mean you’re nervous; or clenching your teeth might mean you’re angry. Stuffing emotions or trying to avoid them will inevitably lead to hardness of heart.

I suggest focusing on these two practices while you are reading the prophet Amos. That’s because reading the prophets never leaves us the same. They evoke lots of self-talk and plenty of emotion. This is the path to better understanding the prophet’s message.

God of the prophets, and of all living things: We are all hungry in a world full of abundance. Give us the grace and awareness to see the abundance of our world and to acknowledge our sins of greed and fear. Give us openness of soul and courageous, willing hearts to be with our sisters and brothers who are in need. We ask for your intervention on behalf of every person hungry for earthly food and hungry for the taste of the Spirit of God.

We give thanks that we can be part of your compassion for all people. This world is blessed with enough food for every person to eat and be satisfied. And we can all feed on the bread of Christ, as God makes a home in our hearts. We are in awe and wonder your great love for us, that we are invited and urged to participate with you in the care of our brothers and sisters. In the name of the Father, Son, and Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.

Psalm 51:1-12 – Sin, Sinners, and God

Have mercy on me, O God,
    according to your steadfast love;
according to your abundant mercy
    blot out my transgressions.
Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity,
    and cleanse me from my sin.

For I know my transgressions,
    and my sin is ever before me.
Against you, you alone, have I sinned,
    and done what is evil in your sight,
so that you are justified in your sentence
    and blameless when you pass judgment.
Indeed, I was born guilty,
    a sinner when my mother conceived me.

You desire truth in the inward being
    therefore teach me wisdom in my secret heart.
Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean;
    wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.
Let me hear joy and gladness;
    let the bones that you have crushed rejoice.
Hide your face from my sins,
    and blot out all my iniquities.

Create in me a clean heart, O God,
    and put a new and right spirit within me.
Do not cast me away from your presence,
    and do not take your holy spirit from me.
Restore to me the joy of your salvation,
    and sustain in me a willing spirit.
(New Revised Standard Version)

Sin. The word is rarely used anymore in places outside of churches. And when it is used within the church, sometimes it is grossly misrepresented, as if humanity’s identity is sin.

Although everyone has sinned and fallen short of God’s glory, our inherent personhood is not sinful. Every human is made in the image and likeness of God. Sin is like a permanent putrid abscess which never seems to go away.

Sin is everywhere – in our hearts, in our world, in our institutions, and in our families. It is on television, the internet, social media, and moves in and out of smartphones. Sin, apparently, is even in our desserts (oh, the decadence of chocolate!). If it takes one to know one, we are all experts on being sinners.

From a biblical vantage, sin is serious business. It is both the things we do (1 John 3:4), as well as the things we leave undone (James 4:17). Sin is both the breaking of God’s commands, and the lack of conforming to the teachings of Jesus.

Christians throughout the ages have generally understood that the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:1-17) and Christ’s law of love (Luke 10:27) constitute a brief summary of God’s holy and moral instruction for humanity.  This is all based in the character of God as both holy and loving. 

Sin, then, might be defined as anything present within a person which does not express, or is contrary to, the basic character of God.

All sin, whether in actions or inactions, has at its root an attitude and activity of self-centeredness. It is a selfish bent of thinking, feeling, and acting. And, oh my, the consequences!

Sinful attitudes bring about an obsession with lust (1 John 8:34; Galatians 5:16); a broken relationship with God (Romans 3:23; Galatians 5:17); bondage to Satan (1 Timothy 3:6-7; 2 Timothy 2:26); death (Romans 6:23; 8:6); hardening of the heart (Hebrews 3:13); and deception (1 Corinthians 3:18; James 1:22, 26) just to a name a few.

Sin lurks in the shadows of the heart, drips from the tongue of the wicked, and lingers in the actions of the selfish and proud. Sin is not something to trifle with, dabble in, or even manage. No, sin, at its core, is a rebellion against God, a stiff-arm to the Lord that claims we know better than God about how to run our lives. 

Sin will eventually break us.  It may initially look good and meet a quick emotional need, but in the end it is like a poisonous snake bite that will kill unless treated.

People are guilty of transgressing basic morality, as well as failing to be ethically virtuous people on any on-going consistent basis. 

Well, that sounds like a total Debbie-Downer. Actually, it’s total depravity. Being depraved people does not mean we are never capable of doing good; it just means that sin has profoundly touched everything in our lives, without exception.

God is faithful and reliable. If we confess our sins, he forgives them and cleanses us from everything we’ve done wrong.

1 John 1:9, GW

When we come to the realization that we are in dire straits, then it is high time we blurt out a prayer of confession along with David. The book of Psalms is the Christian’s prayer book, and there is no better prayer to pray when we come to the end of ourselves than the psalmist’s plea for mercy, based in the steadfast love of God.

The ironic paradox of all this is that experiencing true joy and comfort comes through knowing how great our sin is. 

We can live above sin by being set free from it by the grace of God in Jesus Christ. If a person is to be redeemed from sin, then a provision must be made. Sin has been dealt with once for all through the person and work of Jesus. Christ is our representative, taking our place with the punishment we deserved (Galatians 4:4-5; Ephesians 2:5-6; Colossians 2:9-15; Hebrews 2:17-18; 1 John 2:1).

Jesus Christ is our ultimate substitute (Romans 5:8) which resulted in: our redemption (Galatians 5:13); satisfying all justice (Romans 3:25); and reconciliation to God (Romans 5:10). 

Therefore, the person who believes in Jesus is forgiven of sin because Christ’s sacrifice is sufficient to deal with all the effects of sin.  The Christian is complete in Christ (Colossians 2:10).

A genuine prayer of confession asks for mercy based upon God’s character and ability to heal, rather than trusting in the attempted quality of our petition. In other words, neither the eloquence nor the sheer word structure itself is the proper basis for confession; utterances of a broken and contrite heart, submitted to God, trusting solely in his grace to transform, are the only kind of words appropriate for approaching God with our sin. 

Such prayers are not to be few and far between; they are to be a regular regimen, engaged on a daily basis. Just as we take pills each day for all that ails us, so we need to take in the mercy of God through prayers of confession that link us to the true healing power which brings spiritual health and life.

Create a clean heart for me, God; put a new, faithful spirit deep inside me! Please don’t throw me out of your presence; please don’t take your holy spirit away from me. Return the joy of your salvation to me and sustain me with a willing spirit. Amen.

Amos 8:11-13 – Not Just Some

We all do better when we all do better.

“The days are coming,” declares the Sovereign Lord,
    “when I will send a famine through the land—
not a famine of food or a thirst for water,
    but a famine of hearing the words of the Lord.
People will stagger from sea to sea
    and wander from north to east,
searching for the word of the Lord,
    but they will not find it.

“In that day the lovely young women and strong young men
    will faint because of thirst.
(New International Version)

Global Ears

Christians are presently in the season of Eastertide. It is a time of celebrating resurrection and new life… for all, not just some.

A Christian vision of the world is concerned with the common good of all persons, not just some. God is concerned for the entire planet, not just some of it. The Lord calls people from everywhere, all nations, every ethnicity and race of humanity, not just some.

Somewhere along the line, the people of God began hearing God’s voice, as if it were Charlie Brown’s teacher just saying, “Blah, blah… blah, blah.” Smug in their positions of power, and ever-expanding in their desire for more money and possessions, they stopped up their ears to the cries of the poor, needy, and indigent surrounding them.

Self-Centered Ears

Whenever we cease listening to others, we then construct stories in our heads about why they’re the way they are. “The poor? I’ll tell you why they are poor,” says the person with no significant interaction with anyone struggling in poverty. “Those people are lazy. They don’t like to work. They’re only looking for a free handout. Well, believe you me, they aren’t getting a thing from me! I work hard for what I have,” the satisfied person insists.

Then, with a callous disregard for who and what is right under their noses, the privileged person turns to his wife and says, “What’s for supper?” Food aplenty. Clothing galore. Fresh water with no worries. And no thought to helping fellow humanity with even the dignity of listening to the poor person’s plight.

And God will have none of it from the smug self-justifying person. There won’t be a famine of food. It will be a famine of God’s voice, God’s Word. Those who do not listen will not be listened to.

Individualist Ears

For four-hundred years there was a famine of God’s Word, the time between the Old Testament and the New Testament in Holy Scripture. No voice from God. No divine words for anybody, not just some.

As a human community, what one person or one group of people do, effects everyone else. Our individualism doesn’t like that. We chafe at the thought that other people’s actions influence us.

As a young couple, my wife and I rented an apartment. When I contacted the utility company, they informed me I needed to put an exorbitant amount of money down to begin electrical service in our apartment. It turns out, an older gentleman lived alone in the apartment before us. The neighbors said he always kept all the lights on, and that he had high watt bulbs in everything.

So, when the electric company gave me a figure for a down payment, it was based on the apartment’s average usage over the past year. One man’s single solitary decision about lighting impacted a struggling young couple trying to get through school with a new baby in tow.

Just because we don’t see the impact of our decisions, doesn’t mean there aren’t any.

God sees them all. And he hears the cries of the poor who must fork out the precious little cash they have on things not of their own doing.

Whenever people refuse listening to the poor, the entire human community is at risk of experiencing a famine of God’s speech. That’s for all people, not just some.

Biblical Ears

Scripture says people don’t live on food alone but by every word that comes from the mouth of God (Deuteronomy 8:3; Matthew 4:4). God’s Word is necessary sustenance, just as much as the need for three square meals a day. Withholding both physical and spiritual resources from others, either through sheer inattention or blatant disregard, damns a society to experiencing famine in the total sense of the word – for all, not just some.

Worshiping at the altar of capitalism or any other economic system is idolatry. Although I do not believe capitalism is inherently bad, it does have a shadow side to it which we need to see and acknowledge. Private ownership is a good thing. Yet, capitalism benefits only some, not all. We have class divisions and unequal access to goods and resources. A few control a lot. However, in the kingdom of God, all benefit, not just some.

Capitalist Ears

Capitalism is a good motivator to work. It is also the best motivator there is for greed. What’s more, people are viewed and treated more as commodities than human beings. We are not “giving units” to be exploited for our labor or our resources. We are persons. So, we need to be treated as such. Operating a sweat shop, failing to pay workers a living wage, and turning a blind eye to safety, just to make an extra buck, comes under the condemnation of Amos’ prophecy.

A capitalist approach really ends up bringing needless complexity and an exorbitant amount of goods and services, rather than a simple lifestyle which can care for people – instead of maintaining a bunch of stuff. The insatiable desire for more only causes deafness to both neighbor and God.

Common Good Ears

Our way of being together as one human family is vital. Even lovely young women and strong young men – people who have everything going for them – will be resource-less without any word from God. That is, unless we take the biblical prophets seriously. Then, perhaps we will squarely face our collective shadow side and seek the words of God so that we can love all our neighbors as ourselves, and not just some of them.

Do we have ears to hear?

Creator God of all living things: We are all hungry in a world full of abundance. We ask for the grace to see the abundant resources of our world, to have enough awareness of the dark places of our hearts to acknowledge our sins of greed and fear. Give us openness of soul and courageous, willing hearts to be with our sisters and brothers who are hungry and in pain. We intercede on behalf of every person who is hungry for earthly food and hungry for the Word of God. We pray in the name of our compassionate Savior who hears every cry, and not just some. Amen.