1 Samuel 2:21-26 – Sin and Sinners

God was most especially kind to Hannah. She had three more sons and two daughters! The boy Samuel stayed at the sanctuary and grew up with God.

By this time Eli was very old. He kept getting reports on how his sons were ripping off the people and sleeping with the women who helped-out at the sanctuary. Eli took them to task: “What’s going on here? Why are you doing these things? I hear story after story of your corrupt and evil carrying on. Oh, my sons, this is not right! These are terrible reports I’m getting, stories spreading right and left among God’s people! If you sin against another person, there’s help—God’s help. But if you sin against God, who is around to help?”

But they were far gone in disobedience and refused to listen to a thing their father said. So, God, who was fed up with them, decreed their death. But the boy Samuel was very much alive, growing up, blessed by God and popular with the people. (MSG)

God is not okay with sin. And that is a good thing. In a world full of systemic violence, oppression, injustice, as well as personal cruelty and callousness toward others, we depend upon the Lord’s inherent character of justice and righteousness.

“Sin” is quickly becoming an antiquated word in our culture. That is likely because far too many persons and groups have created extrabiblical lists of sins to avoid – and so many understandably do not want anything to do with it. Biblically, sin is described as wrong and unjust actions (1 John 3:4), as well as failing to do right and just actions (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 summary of God’s holy and moral instruction for humanity. This is all based in the character of God, as a holy and loving Being. Sin, then, may be defined as anything in a person which does not express, or is contrary to, the basic character of God.

All sin, whether through overt actions of injustice or a failure to get involved in righteous causes, is rooted in attitudes and activities of self-centeredness. Such 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. There is no upside to sin.

What all this means is that we are guilty of transgressing basic morality as well as failing to live up to being ethically virtuous people on any on-going consistent basis. “Well,” you might say, “that sounds like a total Debbie-Downer.” No, it is total depravity. Being depraved does not mean we are never capable of doing good; it just means that sin has profoundly touched everything in our lives, without exception.

The ironic paradox is that experiencing true joy and comfort comes through knowing how great our sin is. We can only live above sin if we are 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. In Christianity, 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); which resulted in his sacrifice for sin satisfying all justice (Romans 3:25); which resulted in our reconciliation to God (Romans 5:10). So, 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).

The sin issue has been dealt with decisively and definitively in Christ. Thus, gratitude is the order of the day.  Christians ought to be the last people on earth who walk around looking like a bunch of sourpusses who were baptized in pickle juice. Instead, Christians ought to be the most thankful and gracious people around because they are forgiven people. A lack of joy and celebration betrays a lack of Christianity (Luke 15:25-32).

Sin certainly is awful. It destroys everything it touches and can leave terrible consequences in its wake. Sin, however, does not have the last word. Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection are the decisive blows to sin’s power. The skinny on sin is that it is terribly bad. But Jesus is extremely good and overcomes the worst that sin can dish out.

If only Eli’s sons would have listened to their father and embraced grace, yet their sin was so egregiously intolerant to the point that God had had enough of their shenanigans. The contrast between the Eli’s biological sons and his spiritual son, Samuel, were quite pronounced. Old Eli blessed Samuel and his parents but had to rebuke his own sons. Indeed, unchecked sin led to death, but the gift of favor is given to the penitent.

“Work hard for sin your whole life and your pension is death. But God’s gift is real life, eternal life, delivered by Jesus, our Master.”

romans 6:23, msg

Just as Samuel grew in stature and in favor with God and others, so a thousand-years later Luke the Evangelist uses this language to describe the growth of Jesus (Luke 2:40). We, too, can enjoy the grace of God whenever we forsake the heinous nature of sin and live into the way, the truth, and the life that the Lord has waiting for us.

Almighty God, Sovereign Lord of the universe, and Creator of humanity, we, your unfaithful children, are terribly sorry for our sins and the lives we have lived apart from your grace. We sincerely believe that only through the precious blood of our Lord Jesus Christ can we obtain your forgiveness. We confess we have committed serious offences against you in thought, word, and deed against our neighbors. In laziness, despair, and lust for power, we have provoked hatred, division and hurt within our communities. In greed, deceit, and indifference, we have caused serious damage and unnecessary conflict to our brothers and sisters. In selfishness, insensitivity, and bias we have encouraged and emboldened those who inflict hurt, pain, and sorrow
on our loved ones and families. In the name of religion, doctrine, and even of Christ himself we have wounded fellow believers. In stubbornness, pride, and arrogance, we have caused division and strife within your church.

Mercifully send your Holy Spirit and cleanse us from all unrighteousness, restore in us true faith in Christ, and help us to live in peace with our ourselves and our fellow humanity, through our Lord Jesus Christ, to the glory of your holy name. Amen.

Hebrews 8:1-13 – Deliverance through a Manger

God Is With Us, by Malaysian artist Hanna Varghese, 2006

Now the main point of what we are saying is this: We do have such a high priest, who sat down at the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in heaven, and who serves in the sanctuary, the true tabernacle set up by the Lord, not by a mere human being.

Every high priest is appointed to offer both gifts and sacrifices, and so it was necessary for this one also to have something to offer. If he were on earth, he would not be a priest, for there are already priests who offer the gifts prescribed by the law. They serve at a sanctuary that is a copy and shadow of what is in heaven. Therefore, Moses was warned when he was about to build the tabernacle: “See to it that you make everything according to the pattern shown you on the mountain.” But in fact, the ministry Jesus has received is as superior to theirs as the covenant of which he is mediator is superior to the old one, since the new covenant is established on better promises.

For if there had been nothing wrong with that first covenant, no place would have been sought for another. But God found fault with the people and said:

“The days are coming, declares the Lord,
    when I will make a new covenant
with the people of Israel
    and with the people of Judah.
It will not be like the covenant
    I made with their ancestors
when I took them by the hand
    to lead them out of Egypt,
because they did not remain faithful to my covenant,
    and I turned away from them,
declares the Lord.
This is the covenant I will establish with the people of Israel
    after that time, declares the Lord.
I will put my laws in their minds
    and write them on their hearts.
I will be their God,
    and they will be my people.
No longer will they teach their neighbor,
    or say to one another, ‘Know the Lord,’
because they will all know me,
    from the least of them to the greatest.
For I will forgive their wickedness
    and will remember their sins no more.”

By calling this covenant “new,” he has made the first one obsolete; and what is obsolete and outdated will soon disappear. (NIV)

Our wait is nearly over. Christmas Day is almost here. The Messiah is coming. I genuinely believe that Jesus is the mid-point of history; everything for all time hinges upon Christ’s incarnation. The most cataclysmic event in the history of the world is a birth. The hopes of humanity are focused, of all things, in a stinky old feeding trough for animals – a manger.

Yes, Christians put a lot of focus on the cross and resurrection. Yet, the incarnation was the signature event of God’s breaking into this world. The inconceivable was conceived. God became human. Nothing would ever be the same again….

Nativity by African artist Joseph Mulamba-Mandangi, 2001

Jesus is our great high priest, the nexus between heaven and earth. All else are only mere shadows of the real Savior. Christ is the hinge upon which our own personal lives turn. The old system of law fades and gives way to the person for whom it all pointed. For the law, as important as it was, has never been able to save. In Christ there is a new covenant established by grace, taking care of the sin issue once for all.

Through the Christ child, all other means of deliverance have become obsolete. No matter how much he washed his hands, Pilate could not wash away his guilt. Despite all our efforts to hide or undo our shame, it will not go away. It is through Jesus that all guilt and shame have been banished. Human iniquity is taken away. All that we have done and left undone is forgiven – our sin is purged forever.

A new age has dawned. A new era has been inaugurated. The miracle of the Nativity explodes with continuing effect throughout history. Its continuing effects can still be felt, two-thousand years later. Nothing will ever undo the power of love and grace which was unleashed in the little town of Bethlehem.

Here is a clear and confident declaration to any and all in despondency or despair, no matter the reasons why: We may feel crushed, dejected, confused, or broken because of this past year’s events; but our salvation depends not on our mood or the constant changing of circumstances. Christ has offered himself once for all. The work is finished. Our faithful high priest is even now interceding for you and me in heaven.

Our faith is grounded not in our pedigree, our position, or our ability to produce but forever in what Christ has done in becoming human on our behalf. See the manger where he lies. Know that salvation is before us. Believe the promise of God.

May this eternal truth be always on our hearts:
That the God who breathed this world into being
Placed stars into the heavens
And designed a butterfly’s wing
Is the God who entrusted his life
to the care of ordinary people
became vulnerable that we might know
how strong is the power of Love
A mystery so deep it is impossible to grasp
A mystery so beautiful it is impossible to ignore.

2 Samuel 6:1-11 – Unacceptable Worship

Transferring the ark of the Lord to Jerusalem by Domenico Gorgiolo (1609-1675)

David again brought together all the able young men of Israel—thirty thousand. He and all his men went to Baalah in Judah to bring up from there the ark of God, which is called by the Name, the name of the Lord Almighty, who is enthroned between the cherubim on the ark. They set the ark of God on a new cart and brought it from the house of Abinadab, which was on the hill. Uzzah and Ahio, sons of Abinadab, were guiding the new cart with the ark of God on it, and Ahio was walking in front of it. David and all Israel were celebrating with all their might before the Lord, with castanets, harps, lyres, timbrels, sistrums and cymbals.

When they came to the threshing floor of Nakon, Uzzah reached out and took hold of the ark of God, because the oxen stumbled. The Lord’s anger burned against Uzzah because of his irreverent act; therefore, God struck him down, and he died there beside the ark of God.

Then David was angry because the Lord’s wrath had broken out against Uzzah, and to this day that place is called Perez Uzzah.

David was afraid of the Lord that day and said, “How can the ark of the Lord ever come to me?” He was not willing to take the ark of the Lord to be with him in the City of David. Instead, he took it to the house of Obed-Edom the Gittite. The ark of the Lord remained in the house of Obed-Edom the Gittite for three months, and the Lord blessed him and his entire household. (NIV)

The narrator who originally compiled, told, and wrote this story wanted to communicate something significant about God and how to relate to the Lord.  God put the big kibosh on David’s hoedown. At that time in the history of Israel, the ark was the foremost symbol God was present with the people. Within the ark contained the tablets of the Ten Commandments (the symbol of God’s Word); the staff of the first priest, Aaron, (the symbol of God’s choice); and, a pot of manna (the symbol of God’s provision). 

The ark was a holy object, pointing to a holy God.

The ark of the Lord was built during the time of Moses, when the ritual laws were established concerning offerings and how to approach God in worship. There were detailed prescriptions for how to construct all the sacred articles for worship. (Exodus 35:30-40:33) 

The ark was at the center of worship, representing the presence of God among the people. For nearly five-hundred years before David, the ark had become a familiar object in the life of Israel, always there, continually being the symbol of God to the people.

We have all likely had the experience of something becoming so familiar to us that we begin to lose sight of how important and valuable it really is. Not until we lose it, or something traumatic happens, do we wake up and take stock of its true significance. 

The Israelites had become lethargic and apathetic toward the worship of God, and it led to some disheartening and tragic circumstances. The people of God throughout the ages have always needed to be vigilant against the opiate of familiarity, dulling the senses to the importance of worship.

Moving the ark of the Lord to Jerusalem was one of the first acts David did as the king of Israel and Judah.  God was with David and brought him success against his enemies. David enjoyed a close relationship with God.  Yet even though David’s heart was in the right place, he made a huge miscalculation which ended up offending God. 

David had the best of intentions in bringing the ark to Jerusalem and giving it a prominent place in the center of Jewish life. This was an exceptionally good plan. The problem, however, came in the manner the ark was carried from one place to another. 

King David bringing the ark to Jerusalem by Unknown Italian artist, c.1500

God’s law laid out in careful detail how the ark was to be transported. Uzzah and Ahio were Levites charged with the ark’s care. Only the Levites could handle the ark and the holy objects of worship that went along with it. Since it was the job of the Levites for hundreds of years, they knew better than to carry the ark of the Lord on a cart. God clearly told Moses that the ark was to have two long poles of acacia wood overlaid with gold inserted into four gold rings of the ark.

The ark was to always be carried on the shoulders of the Levites with the two poles.

We are not told why Uzzah and Ahio were pulling the ark on a cart with oxen instead of carrying it in the prescribed way. Perhaps it was because the ark was incredibly heavy and no easy task to carry.  Maybe they decided it would be easier and more expedient to have the much stronger oxen pull the ark on a nice new cart; it would save a lot of energy transporting it over a long distance. 

As pragmatic people, Uzzah and Ahio’s approach makes a lot of sense. However, God was not okay with this arrangement.  When the oxen stumbled and the ark was in danger of falling off the cart, Uzzah reflexively reached out to steady it.  That was the last act Uzzah ever did on this earth. God immediately put him down for his “irreverent act.”

So, here is the not so good idea: Evaluating the worship of God by common sense pragmatism, what we think will work best, and how we feel it ought to be done.  Everything about worship is to pay attention to the holiness of God through our obedience.  Whenever we avoid the prescriptions of Holy Scripture, however best the intentions might be, is not a good thing and people will get hurt.  One can never justify an action that goes against God’s Word because people are praising God. 

Just because the heart is in the right place does not mean what is being done is okay.

David’s first response was anger, then fear.  He gave his best effort, and it resulted in God’s disfavor. Perhaps David realized that maybe he took for granted that the ark could be moved any old way he wanted to move it. 

Trouble with God happens whenever we value efficiency and expediency over obedience and submission.

The great error of Uzzah which resulted in his death was trying to manage God. We do not take care of God; God takes care of us. God does not bow to us and allow himself to be managed by creatures. The Lord wants pure unadulterated obedient worship from people in the way God wants it to be done, period. It is not up for negotiation.

So, David took some time to re-evaluate the whole approach to worship he was doing and left the ark with a Philistine. Then, he went back and did it right….

Holy God, we confess that we have too often forgotten we are yours. Sometimes we carry on our lives as if there was no God and we fall short of being a credible witness to you. For these things we ask your forgiveness and for your strength. Give us clear minds and open hearts so we may bear witness to you in our world. Remind us to be who you would have us to be regardless of what we are doing or who we are with. Hold us close and build our relationship with you and with those you have given us on earth, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Acts 2:36-42 – From Sorrow to Salvation

Baptism by American artist Ivey Hayes (1948-2012)

“Therefore, let all Israel be assured of this: God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Messiah.”

When the people heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and the other apostles, “Brothers, what shall we do?”

Peter replied, “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. The promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off—for all whom the Lord our God will call.”

With many other words he warned them; and he pleaded with them, “Save yourselves from this corrupt generation.” Those who accepted his message were baptized, and about three thousand were added to their number that day.

They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. (NIV)

Imagine we are all standing around in a huge modern-day lobby, ready to listen to Peter. We understand big events like this must be well-organized, so everyone is getting a name tag.  But the name tags are given to us with not only our first names; they also include our hidden guilt and shame.  People walk up to the registration table. “Name?” “Bob.”  “What are you ashamed of, Bob?”  “I stole some money from my boss once, and he never found out.” The person takes a marker and writes, Bill: Embezzler. 

Next person: “Name?” “Jill.” “Jill, what are you guilty of?” “I deliberately slandered a group of people. I said things that were not true about them because I did not like them.” So, the person writes on Jill’s nametag, Jill: Slanderer. “Name?” “George.” “What kind of guilt and shame are you carrying?” “I’ve been coveting my neighbor’s Corvette… and his wife.” George: Coveter. Person after person comes. 

Then, up to the table comes Jesus. “What is your shame, Jesus?” Well, in truth, none. So, Jesus starts walking down the line. He comes to Bob and says, “Bob, give me your name tag,” and puts it on himself. “Jill, give me your name tag.” He puts it on himself. “George, give me your name tag.” It goes on himself.

Soon Jesus is covered with name tags and a bunch of icky shame and awful guilt. Apart from Jesus, we cannot take the name tags off because we cannot shed the labels of who we really are. Christ bore the cross covered with all our guilt and shame attached to him. It was all crucified with him.

When the people of the Apostle Peter’s day understood who Jesus was and what he had done for them, they were deeply troubled in their spirits and their souls were horribly upset. They were cut to the heart with the things they had done which sent Christ to the cross. The crowd’s remorse was so deep and profound that they were beside themselves with spiritual pain and asked Peter,

“What shall we do!?”

Peter called them to “repent and be baptized.” To repent is to have a complete change of mind and heart; it is to express a courageous naming of shame, guilt, and sin. Repentance, then, leads to a 180 degree turn of direction to our lives. Repentance is realizing what we have become, and seeing it is not a good place to be.

Sometimes we lack awareness of how serious our situation really is and how at risk we really are. It may be hard to imagine our offense is bad enough to crucify Jesus. Perhaps we have self-justified our morsels of gossip or our lack of attention to the poor, only choosing to see our hard work and sincere efforts to do good.

For others, the problem with repentance runs deeper, having been raised in a legalistic environment. These folks lug around a guilt-laden backpack that would bend the knees of a mule. And most of the guilt, they realize, is neurotic—not based on any real transgression.  Every bad thought and each failure of faith is obsessed over to the point that they cannot shake the pangs of constant shame.

The good news is that the kingdom of God is near. In the name of Jesus Christ there is forgiveness, healing, and new life. If today there is a realization of being in a bad place in your life, whatever that place is, the cross of Christ addresses the deepest needs of your life. What shall we do?  Repent and be baptized.

Repentance, baptism, forgiveness of sins, and receiving the Spirit are all linked together in today’s New Testament lesson. Baptism is the sign and seal of God’s promise of forgiveness in Jesus; it visually shows us that God washes away our guilt and shame in the name of Jesus.

Baptism is a different kind of nametag, identifying that we belong to God. One who repents and embraces new life in Jesus Christ de-thrones all other competing lords and identifies as a beloved child of God.

The result of that ancient mass repentance and baptism was that three-thousand people were added to a small church of one-hundred-twenty persons! Since repentance leads to action, the new believers went to work devoting themselves to the apostles’ teaching and orienting their lives completely around Jesus through their constant fellowship together.

Allow me to be a bit more specific about what repentance looks like and does not look like. The prayers of the mildly repentant sound something like this:

“Easy-going God: We have occasionally had some minor errors of judgment, but they’re not really our fault. Due to forces beyond our control, we have sometimes failed to act in accordance with our own best interests. Under the circumstances, we did the best we could. We are glad to say that we’re doing okay, perhaps even slightly above average. Be your own sweet Self with those who know they are not perfect. Grant us that we may continue to live a harmless and happy life and keep our self-respect. And we ask all these things according to the unlimited tolerances which we have a right to expect from you. Amen.”

I like eggs.  I eat them nearly every day.  Fresh eggs are the best.  Sometimes I make an omelet, with, of course, bacon, green pepper, and cheese.  When I am making my omelet, if I crack open a rotten egg, I do not go ahead and mix it in with the others in the hope that the other good eggs will overwhelm the rotten one.

Grace can only be grace when we have a true realization of our guilt and shame. Grace is radical. It throws out the rotten omelet altogether and makes a new one so incredibly delicious that we never want to go back to the old way of making them. And it is for everyone who calls on the name of the Lord.

Godly sorrow, like the kind in today’s story, leads to repentance. In the Apostle Paul’s first letter to the Corinthian church, he called them out and insisted they turn from their old way of life.  In his second letter, he followed up with this: 

I know I distressed you greatly with my letter. Although I felt awful at the time, I don’t feel at all bad now that I see how it turned out. The letter upset you, but only for a while. Now I’m glad—not that you were upset, but that you were jarred into turning things around. You let the distress bring you to God, not drive you from him. The result was all gain, no loss.

Distress that drives us to God does that. It turns us around. It gets us back in the way of salvation. We never regret that kind of pain. But those who let distress drive them away from God are full of regrets, end up on a deathbed of regrets.

And now, isn’t it wonderful all the ways in which this distress has goaded you closer to God? You’re more alive, more concerned, more sensitive, more reverent, more human, more passionate, more responsible. Looked at from any angle, you’ve come out of this with purity of heart. And that is what I was hoping for in the first place when I wrote the letter. (2 Corinthians 7:8-11, MSG)

There are (many) times we need to feel awful before we feel wonderful – awful concerning how much we have hidden our shame and never let it see the purifying light of the gospel – but wonderful of how over-the-top good grace really is, once we have exposed the guilt and let Jesus replace it with God’s mercy.

O merciful God, we bring long-held grudges and recent grievances, and we chew them over, even at the foot of your cross. We tiptoe around chasms of misunderstanding, we pick our way anxiously among stumbling-blocks of language and culture, and blame each other for every misstep, even while singing of your Spirit. We tremble to name the troubles we see in the Church and the world, for fear of our own sins finding us out, for fear that we will become easy targets for everyone’s hostility. Have pity on us, for our hands are not strong enough and our hearts are not big enough to hold all together in love. We beg you to come to us, foolish as we are, downcast and despairing. We beg you to send us a breath of your Spirit with the perfume of resurrection and hope, through Jesus Christ, the Light of the world. Amen.