Dealing with Grinding Pain (Psalm 79:1-9)

The Babylonian conquest of Jerusalem, by William Hole (1846-1917)

God, nations have come against your chosen people.
    They have ruined your holy Temple.
    They have turned Jerusalem into ruins.
They have given the bodies of your servants as food to the wild birds.
They have given the bodies of those who worship you to the wild animals.
They have spilled blood like water all around Jerusalem.
    No one was left to bury the dead.
We are a joke to the other nations;
    they laugh and make fun of us.

Lord, how long will this last?
    Will you be angry forever?
    How long will your jealousy burn like a fire?
Be angry with the nations that do not know you
    and with the kingdoms that do not honor you.
They have gobbled up the people of Jacob
    and destroyed their land.
Don’t punish us for our past sins.
    Show your mercy to us soon,
    because we are helpless!
God our Savior, help us
    so people will praise you.
Save us and forgive our sins
    so people will honor you. (New Century Version)

I don’t like evil. And I really don’t like arrogant people who want what they want and leave a path of destruction behind them.

The setting behind today’s Psalm is the destruction of the temple. It was razed by a conquering army who proudly gloated over their victory. This psalm, as all psalms, is a prayer. It’s a bitter and angry cry for God to step in and act on behalf of the humiliated people.

The psalm is more than a simple plea for help; it is a deeply passionate appeal. As a child of the 1960’s, my phrase for the psalmist’s entreaty is, “God, stick it to the man!”

There is no polite knock at the side door of God’s house in the face of such evil. This is a pounding on the front door with the demand for God to do something about this terrible trouble. For the psalmist, the incongruence between who God is and what has happened to God’s people is inconceivable and unacceptable.

To profane God’s temple is to profane God; and to kill and maim God’s people is to flip the middle finger at God. The psalmist is beside himself and overwhelmed with emotion.

There is something very instructive here that we ought not miss. When we have been brutalized, victimized, and/or demoralized, we just want someone, especially the Lord we serve, to take notice and feel what we are feeling.

Never underestimate the power of empathy and solidarity. To feel alone and bereft of help is an awful feeling.

Perhaps the psalmist’s prayer offends some sensibilities. I wonder, for those who find the language difficult, have ever had a daughter raped or a house destroyed by fire or seen a person killed without mercy in front of their own eyes. Methinks they have not. The feelings of helpless despair and sheer anger defy human words. These are not casual affronts but malicious destructions of property and people.

We need someone to affirm the raw ruthlessness of it all, to have some understanding of the impossible place we are in with such wanton cruelty. When our very support is ripped from our lives, the madness within is too much to bear.

Who will rescue us from this body of death?

God is big enough to handle our rage and our hurt. The Lord is available and hears our desperate voice of prayer. Yet, God is not always going to directly and immediately answer on the terms we stipulate. God acts out of God’s own providence and justice, and not from our expectations. And that is a good thing, not a bad thing.

God sees, knows, and feels with us. This realization enables us to recenter and reorient ourselves around faith, hope, and love. New life is never a gift in a vacuum; it comes out of agonizing struggle in reckoning with existing evil.

So, when someone goes through a hellish experience, we are to exercise our capacity to listen and witness their horrible spiritual pain. Healing hurts: it is not a pleasant affair. We are to hang in there and walk alongside another in their hour of need, even when their vitriol seems over the top to us.

For only in telling our story to another will any of us find relief and renewed hope.

The psalms permit us to use language appropriate to what has happened to us. They also allow us to move beyond the venom to the God who restores broken lives.

Lord Jesus Christ, by your patience in suffering you hallowed earthly pain and gave us the example of obedience to your Father’ will.

Be near me in my time of weakness and pain; sustain me by your grace, that my strength and courage may not fail; heal me according to you will; and help me always to believe that what happens to me here is of little account if you hold me in eternal life, my Lord and my God.

As the Lord Jesus cried out on the cross, I cry out to you in pain, O God my Creator. Do not forsake me. Grant me relief from this suffering and preserve me in peace, through the power of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Get Along with Each Other (Romans 3:1-8)

So, what difference does it make who’s a Jew and who isn’t, who has been trained in God’s ways and who hasn’t? As it turns out, it makes a lot of difference—but not the difference so many have assumed.

First, there’s the matter of being put in charge of writing down and caring for God’s revelation, these Holy Scriptures. So, what if, in the course of doing that, some of those Jews abandoned their post? God didn’t abandon them. Do you think their faithlessness cancels out his faithfulness? Not on your life! Depend on it: God keeps his word even when the whole world is lying through its teeth. Scripture says the same:

Your words stand fast and true;
Rejection doesn’t faze you.

But if our wrongdoing only underlines and confirms God’s right-doing, shouldn’t we be commended for helping out? Since our lies don’t even make a dent in his truth, isn’t it wrong of God to back us to the wall and hold us to our word? These questions come up. The answer to such questions is no, a most emphatic No! How else would things ever get straightened out if God didn’t do the straightening?

It’s simply perverse to say, “If my lies serve to show off God’s truth all the more gloriously, why blame me? I’m doing God a favor.” Some people are actually trying to put such words in our mouths, claiming that we go around saying, “The more evil we do, the more good God does, so let’s just do it!” That’s pure slander, as I’m sure you’ll agree. (The Message)

The Apostle Paul’s letter to the Roman Church is a hefty sixteen chapters of dense material and extended arguments of intense reasoning. Likely,

Likely, Paul felt compelled to be so verbose because of the church’s situation.

The Roman Church, at the time of Paul’s writing, was made up of both Jewish and Gentile believers in Jesus. Jews and Gentiles have a complicated history together, to say the least.

The Roman Empire was firmly in control of Palestine and did not always treat the Jewish people well. In addition, the religious backgrounds of Jew and Gentile were as different as you can get.

Whereas the Jewish Christians had a long and rich history with God and the Old Testament, the Gentile Christians were green believers, fresh from centuries of paganism and esoteric rituals. Now, the two of them were together in one place, worshiping Jesus together.

Jews and Gentiles together made for a potentially combustible situation.

Throughout the letter to the Romans, Paul goes back and forth addressing the two groups of Jews and Gentiles. The overarching problem was this:

  • The Jewish believers tended to look down on the Gentile Christians and thought they needed to become Jewish to really be the kind of Christians God was looking for.
  • The Gentile believers tended to dismiss their Jewish brothers and sisters as backward and stuck in tradition.

Each group thought the other must become like them. So, Paul, bless his apostolic heart, had a hot mess in the making with these believers.

In our New Testament lesson for today, Paul is directing his comments toward the Gentile Christians. He wanted them to gain some appreciation for the Jewish people. After all, they were chosen by God to become a nation of priests and prophets for the world. Discounting that history would be to neglect and even invalidate their shared salvation.

For Paul, to have two churches, one Jew and the other Gentile, would be a complete travesty of Christ’s redemption for humanity.

Jesus sought to bring disparate peoples together and not keep them divided. The cross freed us by eliminating the barriers which separate us. The Roman Church needed to work together at being one people under the lordship of Christ.

There was to be no ethnic, religious, or political one-upmanship on Paul’s watch.

Truth be told, both Jew and Gentile did not always do so well with their respective histories. So, there is no ground for boasting or trying to argue for their own way. In fact, the unfaithfulness of people simply shows the incredible faithfulness of God in greater relief. 

If there were no sin, grace would not be needed; no cross would have existed. Just because the foulness and degradation of sin brings out the gracious, faithful, and forgiving character of God in Christ, does not mean that sin is okay or that we can flippantly wave it off with uttering some mumbo-jumbo cheap grace which devalues the majesty of God.

For example, when antebellum southern slaveholders in nineteenth-century America argued for their peculiar institution by saying that snatching black Africans from their homes was a good thing so that they could get out of their religious animistic worldview and be exposed to Christianity, I am positively sure that the Apostle Paul rolled over in his grave and begged Jesus to resurrect him early and send him to tackle such an affront to the cross of Christ!

Sin is never to be excused through twisted human mental gymnastics.

Paul worked laboriously to unite the churches he established and bring differing people groups together under Christ.

  • This does not mean is that all cultural and personal distinctions are ignored or erased.
  • This does mean that we value one another’s differences and gather around the shared value of knowing Jesus Christ.

The Church was neither going to become Jewish nor Gentile but something altogether new – one new people out of the two. Paul framed the matter this way to the Ephesian Church:

Therefore, remember that formerly you who are Gentiles by birth and called “uncircumcised” by those who call themselves “the circumcision” (which is done in the body by human hands)— remember that at that time you were separate from Christ, excluded from citizenship in Israel and foreigners to the covenants of the promise, without hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near by the blood of Christ.

For he himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, by setting aside in his flesh the law with its commands and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace, 16 and in one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility. He came and preached peace to you who were far away and peace to those who were near. For through him we both have access to the Father by one Spirit. (Ephesians 2:11-18, NIV)

Solitary righteousness is an oxymoron. Righteousness can only be truly lived and expressed with other people.

Yes, there is freedom in Christ. Yet, that freedom must be continually applied through making every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.

So, get along with one another.

O God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, our only Savior, the Prince of Peace: Give us grace to seriously lay aside all unhappy divisions. Take away all hatred and prejudice, and whatsoever else may hinder us from godly union and harmony: that, as there is but one Body, and one Spirit, and one hope of our calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of us all; so, may we be forever all of one heart, and of one soul, united in one holy bond of truth and peace, faith and love, with one mind and one mouth, glorify Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Pride Comes Before the Fall (Luke 22:31-33, 54-62)

The Denial of Peter by Carl Bloch (1834-1890)

“Simon, Simon, Satan has asked to sift all of you as wheat. But I have prayed for you, Simon, that your faith may not fail. And when you have turned back, strengthen your brothers.”

But he replied, “Lord, I am ready to go with you to prison and to death….”

Then seizing Jesus, they led him away and took him into the house of the high priest. Peter followed at a distance. And when some there had kindled a fire in the middle of the courtyard and had sat down together, Peter sat down with them. A servant girl saw him seated there in the firelight. She looked closely at him and said, “This man was with him.”

But he denied it. “Woman, I don’t know him,” he said.

A little later someone else saw him and said, “You also are one of them.”

“Man, I am not!” Peter replied.

About an hour later another asserted, “Certainly this fellow was with him, for he is a Galilean.”

Peter replied, “Man, I don’t know what you’re talking about!” Just as he was speaking, the rooster crowed. The Lord turned and looked straight at Peter. Then Peter remembered the word the Lord had spoken to him: “Before the rooster crows today, you will disown me three times.”And he went outside and wept bitterly. (New International Version)

A Lesson In Trust

One day I watched a lifeguard handle a group of kids for their first time in the pool. She went to each one and told them to put their ears in the water and their belly buttons in the air while she was holding them up. “When I count to three, you won’t feel my hands underneath you, but they’re there,” she said. 

Most of the kids frantically jerked their knees toward their chins and flailed their arms.

Even though nearly all people float when they assume a posture of rest, many believe they’ll sink, and don’t keep their posture for long. 

The disciples had a hard time trusting Jesus. They couldn’t seem to rest and relax because Jesus said and did things that they were not expecting him to say and do. 

Jesus preached the necessity of humility and loving one’s enemies; and he focused on ministry to the least persons around them. The disciples had not yet really bought into Christ’s kingdom agenda because they kept pulling their knees up by thinking Jesus was going to lead a rebellion against the Romans and put Israel back on the map – believing it would be just like the old days of Jewish domination of the land.

But Jesus is all about a different agenda: transformation of the inner person that leads to greater submission to God’s will so that the least persons among us will be reached.

Bad News Before Good News

Many already believe they know what God wants and how to follow Jesus, and so, aren’t much open to the Spirit. They acknowledge they’re sinners, yet don’t believe their sin is as bad as others. “O, sure, we sin, but not like murderers and child molesters. Our sins are ‘respectable’– a little resentment, a little prejudice, and a little gossip is even necessary to make sure people submit to the unwritten rules.”

We must first hear the bad news before we can hear the good news. Once we hear the bad news and accept it, we must receive God’s remedy for it. In order to do this, let’s compare and contrast two disciples: Peter and Judas.

Peter’s Denial, 17th Century Ethiopian

Peter and Judas

Peter and Judas shared a similar vision about seeing Israel restored to its previous glorious prominence. Judas was a Zealot, ready to take military action, if necessary; and Peter had no problem taking up the sword when it seemed the time was ripe for a political rebellion and takeover.

Even though Peter insisted he would never turn on Jesus, Jesus knew better. And, sure enough, Peter did a full-fledged moral belly flop in the pool of denial by disowning Jesus three times.

Judas actually caught on, quicker than Peter, that Jesus wasn’t going to lead a military coup. Judas had enough of wasting time on poor marginalized people; they weren’t going to make good soldiers. After Judas clearly saw that Jesus had no intention of forcing an earthly political kingdom, he actively sought an opportunity to betray him.

Neither Judas or Peter, nor any of the disciples wanted to take a step into the world of suffering as the means of reaching others and embracing the kingdom of God. They wanted glory not suffering. But Jesus chose the cup of suffering.

Both Judas and Peter realized after denying Jesus that they had made a terrible mistake. But that is where the similarities end. 

Judas realized what he had done, and so, went out and died by suicide. Rather than throw himself upon the mercy of God, Judas tried to atone for his own sin. He tried to fix something that could not be undone. It was a refusal of grace.

Peter responded by weeping bitterly, consistent with someone experiencing repentance. He realized he was poor in spirit and mourned over his sin. Peter later becomes a genuinely meek person with God’s righteousness taking root within him as he, in the book of Acts, demonstrated mercy and became a preacher of truth and grace.

The Need for Transformation

There cannot be systemic and structural renewal without personal transformation. And there cannot be personal transformation without a brutally honest assessment of myself. “I will never fall,” comes from a heart of pride that believes “I’m not so bad.”

Our sins and failures stem ultimately from a lack of trust. We keep pulling our knees up because we are too anxious to let the agenda of Jesus control our lives. 

Proud people don’t pray much because they are self-sufficient. But humble people pray a lot because they don’t want to fall into temptation. They pray because they discern they’re prone to being like a cockeye little dog who thinks he is a big dog. 

Even Jesus felt the need to watch and pray so that he could face his hour of pain and suffering on behalf of all mankind.

Following Either Close or From a Distance

Jesus was arrested and Peter followed him at a distance. If we are brutally honest with ourselves, this too, describes much of our own following of Jesus. We want to see how everything will shake-out before we commit. 

Christ is asking us to trust him, to make and keep promises before we even know what it all means. We need to acknowledge and admit that we have commitment-it is; we have made a mess of our lives by our stubbornness and holding on to our own ideas for how we think things ought to go.

If you find yourself in a mess, whether it is of your own making or of somebody else, the only thing that can handle it is a close following of grace. We are to approach God with brutal honesty, humility, and a willingness to rest and relax when he is telling you to. 

The Lord will give you his righteousness; you need not try to obtain it on your own. So, let the knees go down and stick the belly button out – rest in Jesus.

The Parables of the Lost Sheep and the Lost Coin (Luke 15:1-10)

By Sieger Koder (1925-2015)

Now the tax collectors and sinners were all gathering around to hear Jesus. But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.”

Then Jesus told them this parable: “Suppose one of you has a hundred sheep and loses one of them. Doesn’t he leave the ninety-nine in the open country and go after the lost sheep until he finds it? And when he finds it, he joyfully puts it on his shoulders and goes home. Then he calls his friends and neighbors together and says, ‘Rejoice with me; I have found my lost sheep.’ I tell you that in the same way there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent.“

Or suppose a woman has ten silver coins and loses one. Doesn’t she light a lamp, sweep the house and search carefully until she finds it? And when she finds it, she calls her friends and neighbors together and says, ‘Rejoice with me; I have found my lost coin.’ In the same way, I tell you, there is rejoicing in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.” (New International Version)

Lost people matter to God… a lot. They matter so much to the Lord that one lost soul who is found is the grounds for a big celestial party. 

Note a simple observation of today’s Gospel lesson: If there is rejoicing in the presence of angels over one sinner who repents, then it is God who is doing the rejoicing. The Lord is absolutely giddy with joy over a lost person being found.

Jesus told two short stories, each teaching the same thing, so that we will be absolutely sure to get it: A loving God has unbounded joy over lost people being found. These parables of Jesus give us a glimpse of God’s own heart. The Lord would do anything to find a lost person, to restore and reconcile that person to right relationships. 

The Lost Sheep by Jorge Cocco Santángelo

God would go dumpster diving and wade through stinky nasty garbage to find just one lost valuable person.

Restoring lost people is such a high priority to God that the Father sent the Son to this earth. Jesus paid the ultimate price of a cruel death on a cross to reconcile a broken lost relationship between people and God.

I have not always been a devoted follower of Christ. I still remember what it felt like to be separated from God and estranged from the Church – it was lonely and awful, like being in a deep black hole with no way of getting out and no one around to help. 

But God mercifully sent people into my life to share good news with me and help me out of my prodigal way of life. I once was lost. But now I am found. When I turned from my path of destruction and embraced Jesus Christ, there was a big party in heaven.

God gathering wayward and lost persons is a gracious activity, seemingly free from criticism. But there was. The rightful Judge of the universe got judged by a group of spiritual simpletons. And because there were complaints leveled at Jesus for purposely going after the lost, it therefore needs to be asked: 

Where do we locate ourselves in these parables? 

The two stories were downright offensive to many of Christ’s original hearers. Those upset with Jesus were so inwardly focused that they believed ministry ought to revolve around them and their needs.

And, what’s more, the religious leaders were offended because they thought all the fuss about sinners would only highlight their sin. In other words, there ought to be no party and no rejoicing for people who have lived an ethically and morally dubious life.

Preaching grace is always offensive to people who work for their salvation. It is scandalous to such persons to hear that Jesus did not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance. 

If we hear Christ’s parables and the concern for lost sinners who don’t know Jesus and say, “Well, all this talk about outreach is well and good, but what about us?  What about me? After all, I never went down a path of immorality or hurt anyone. I’m a good person. Where’s my party?” Then, we must locate ourselves as the lost persons in need of being found by God’s grace.

Consider for a moment the worst sinner you can think of – a person for whom you would label as being akin to the devil…. Now picture that person being found by God and becoming a follower of Christ….

Would you attend the party to celebrate that person’s repentance, reconciliation, and recovery? 

If any of us feels justified in our hate, then we are the lost one in need of turning from our sin.

In leaving the ninety-nine sheep in the flock and going after the one sheep, God gave preferential attention to the lost….

Can you live with that? 

These parables of Jesus have significant meaning for church programs, budgets, and committees. By most estimations, only one-in-five lost people in America even knows one Christian. Statistics like that are what keep me up at night; it deeply saddens me. It drives me to prayer.

God’s unconditional mercy and amazing grace is what makes all the difference. 

If we lose the sense of awe and appreciation for what God has done for us in Christ, then there will be no outreach. Finding lost people is not dependent on completing a class on evangelism or getting training in how to answer every question.

Outreach is fueled by passion and desire. Healthy Christians reproduce themselves. I assume you didn’t take a class on how to procreate – you just had the desire and the willingness; and then, you celebrated nine-months later, the birth of new life.

New life always needs to be celebrated because that’s what God does. Yet, the party cannot commence until the lost are found….

O God – blessed Father, Son, and Spirit – sanctify all believers everywhere with your abiding presence. Enlighten the minds of your people more and more with the light of the Gospel. Bring lost people to the knowledge of our Savior Jesus Christ; and those who are walking in the way of life, keep steadfast to the end. Guard those who are strong and prosperous from forgetting you and straying from the flock. Increase in us your grace and love so that we may participate with you in finding the lost. Amen.