Spiritual Renewal (Isaiah 30:19-26)

People of Zion, who live in Jerusalem, you will weep no more. How gracious he will be when you cry for help! As soon as he hears, he will answer you. Although the Lord gives you the bread of adversity and the water of affliction, your teachers will be hidden no more; with your own eyes you will see them. Whether you turn to the right or to the left, your ears will hear a voice behind you, saying, “This is the way; walk in it.” Then you will desecrate your idols overlaid with silver and your images covered with gold; you will throw them away like a menstrual cloth and say to them, “Away with you!”

He will also send you rain for the seed you sow in the ground, and the food that comes from the land will be rich and plentiful. In that day your cattle will graze in broad meadows. The oxen and donkeys that work the soil will eat fodder and mash, spread out with fork and shovel. In the day of great slaughter, when the towers fall, streams of water will flow on every high mountain and every lofty hill. The moon will shine like the sun, and the sunlight will be seven times brighter, like the light of seven full days, when the Lord binds up the bruises of his people and heals the wounds he inflicted. (New International Version)

Better days are ahead.

In this time of year, there are many people who simply don’t have to think twice about purchasing and giving gifts for Christmas. They have blessings, both material and spiritual. And they can always identify other persons who are in much more need than them. Some of them may even believe that those in need are in that position because of unwise individual choices. 

But we must maintain a focus on our own lives. We need to recognize the maladies of our hearts. The state of our lives is as important, and is just as real and needy, as someone else’s life who is in more humble circumstances. 

There are specific conditions in our lives that leave us in bondage and in need of restoration, renewal, and revitalization, just like all kinds of other people. 

Being a vital part of a local church does not automatically immune one from having serious needs. And having a good steady income doesn’t inoculate one from need or privation.

We must not suppress those realities and needs, but instead, name the conditions which are packed away in a closet of our heart deep inside us – such things as the love of possessions and money; broken relationships; old grudges; hidden addictions; domestic violence; denial of depression; secret affairs; cutting; fear; anger; greed; hatred; and much more. 

Outward smiles and small talk conversations may hide the truth from others, but they do nothing to hide from a God for whom everything is laid bare.

The good news is not just something for someone else who has “obvious” needs; the gospel must touch our lives and bring us freedom.

Only then can we pass on the good news to the legion of social ills that make our world sick. There are people all around us who need spiritual, emotional, and material help. Yet, we will not have eyes to see them, or have hearts to help, if we are stuffing our own burdens so deep within that we are blind to others.

Far too many Christians, especially the church-going kind, have become expert emotional stuffers and deniers of need. 

We may believe “those other people” need ministries of justice and help. But the truth is: Many of us are one paycheck, one prodigal kid, one mental health diagnosis, one serious illness, one drink, one affair, or one bad decision away from being one of “those people” – the people we typically identify as in need – the ones that bad things happen to – the ones we do not want next door to us.

We may not yet be vulnerable enough to admit our situation; and so, we keep practicing the denial of our spiritual poverty. 

What to do? Turn from the things that have caused us to be in poverty and be prisoners (not just secretly!) and hope in the Lord’s restorative grace. God takes all sorts of seemingly impossible situations of destruction and death, creating fresh new growth in the form of a little green sprout. 

God will rebuild our ruined souls; restore the places of our lives that have been devastated; and renew the places that have not seen renewal for generations. 

It begins with you and me allowing the justice of God to work within us, not just others. 

If we want comfort, we need to mourn. If we desire joy, then there needs to be some lamenting of a dire situation. If we hope for an oak of righteousness, there must be a confession of despair. For there to be a resurrection, there has to be a death.

What is your real situation and the true realities of your life that need to be named? 

Where will you go to address those needs and truths? 

Will you keep stuffing them, or will you become able to voice your inner personal needs? 

How might you be vulnerable enough to allow others to minister grace to your needy soul?

Let us have a vision of Jesus coming into our lives and replacing a tattered hat of grief with a crown of beauty. 

Let us picture the Lord placing on us a garment of praise to replace our stinky clothes of grumbling. 

Let us allow our lives to display the grace of God in Christ because we have been profoundly touched by the justice of God. 

Let us herald the coming of the Christ child as the hope of us all.

Soli Deo Gloria

Build It Now! (Haggai 1:1-15a)

Statue of the prophet Haggai, by Giovanni Pisano, c.1290 C.E., Siena, Italy

In the second year of King Darius, on the first day of the sixth month, the word of the Lord came through the prophet Haggai to Zerubbabel son of Shealtiel, governor of Judah, and to Joshua son of Jozadak, the high priest:

This is what the Lord Almighty says: “These people say, ‘The time has not yet come to rebuild the Lord’s house.’”

Then the word of the Lord came through the prophet Haggai: “Is it a time for you yourselves to be living in your paneled houses, while this house remains a ruin?”

Now this is what the Lord Almighty says: “Give careful thought to your ways. You have planted much but harvested little. You eat, but never have enough. You drink, but never have your fill. You put on clothes but are not warm. You earn wages, only to put them in a purse with holes in it.”

This is what the Lord Almighty says: “Give careful thought to your ways. Go up into the mountains and bring down timber and build my house, so that I may take pleasure in it and be honored,” says the Lord. 

“You expected much, but see, it turned out to be little. What you brought home, I blew away. Why?” declares the Lord Almighty. “Because of my house, which remains a ruin, while each of you is busy with your own house. 

Therefore, because of you the heavens have withheld their dew and the earth its crops. I called for a drought on the fields and the mountains, on the grain, the new wine, the olive oil and everything else the ground produces, on people and livestock, and on all the labor of your hands.”

Then Zerubbabel son of Shealtiel, Joshua son of Jozadak, the high priest, and the whole remnant of the people obeyed the voice of the Lord their God and the message of the prophet Haggai, because the Lord their God had sent him. And the people feared the Lord.

Then Haggai, the Lord’s messenger, gave this message of the Lord to the people: “I am with you,” declares the Lord. So the Lord stirred up the spirit of Zerubbabel son of Shealtiel, governor of Judah, and the spirit of Joshua son of Jozadak, the high priest, and the spirit of the whole remnant of the people. They came and began to work on the house of the Lord Almighty, their God, on the twenty-fourth day of the sixth month. (New International Version)

Timing is everything.

There is a time to ponder and plan and there’s a time to move and act. If the time is ripe for action, then the lack of initiative is plain old procrastination. But how do you know when to act?

If the Lord says it’s time, well then, it’s time!

God’s people wouldn’t have described their inaction in rebuilding God’s house as dragging their feet. They perceived their inertia as a sensible delay.

Yet, the Lord saw the people’s approach as inexcusable enough to send a prophet with a specific message and call to action: Build the house now!

Let’s get a feel for why God’s call for immediacy comes when it does. In the ancient world, it had always been the practice of armies to assimilate conquered peoples into the culture of the conquering king. 

In the eighth century B.C.E., the Assyrian Empire conquered the northern kingdom of Israel. The Assyrians took most of the people into captivity, left the poorest of the people alone, and resettled the land with some of their own Assyrian people. The inevitable intermarriages resulted in their progeny being known as the Samaritans in the New Testament Gospels, as the Samaritans.

Two-hundred years after Assyria conquered Israel, Nebuchadnezzar besieged the southern kingdom of Judah and took over Jerusalem. He carried Daniel and all the other educated and professional people to Babylon. In the course of taking the city, Nebuchadnezzar tore down the wall and destroyed the temple that Solomon had made.

During the Babylonian exile, the Persians conquered Babylon and became rulers of a large geographical empire. Because the massive Persian Empire was in control of so many different kinds of people across such a vast territory, they were not able to operate as previous empires did by assimilation and resettlement. 

Instead, the Persians did something new and different: They encouraged and enabled their conquered peoples to keep their religion and their culture. The only caveat was that they had to give tribute and allegiance to the empire and pray for the king. This is why Nehemiah, Ezra, and Haggai were able to return to Jerusalem and given royal authority to rebuild the wall and the temple. 

But, from the git go, there was opposition to the rebuilding from the old Canaanite inhabitants of the land. After many years, the wall was rebuilt but the temple restoration bogged down. The people slowly became discouraged and lost enthusiasm to do the work. 

Understandably, the people got caught up in taking care of their own homes and just plain neglected working on the temple. Over time, they just forgot about the entire project. But God didn’t.

The prophet Haggai made it clear that the people’s mental distraction and physical neglect was taken as disrespect by the Lord. Haggai insisted that the reason the people were not experiencing blessing on their land was because they simply did not have their priorities straight. 

Thus, God sent the prophet Haggai to preach a sermon entitled: Build the house now! 

To the people’s credit, they responded to the call of God and started rebuilding God’s house. The work was completed. However, there seemed to be a problem. 

Rebuilding the Temple, by Gustave Doré, 1866

Moving into the rest of Haggai’s prophecy, the newly restored temple didn’t look anything like Solomon’s grand and glorious temple. Many of the older worshipers could still remember Solomon’s temple; to them, the rebuilt temple seemed like a bologna sandwich compared to the T-bone steak of the past. 

So, God sent Haggai again to encourage the people. The Lord will be with them. The restored temple may not look the same, but what makes the temple great is God’s glory.

An important takeaway from the prophecy of Haggai is that the Lord is a jealous God; God’s people are to worship the Lord with all of their heart, soul, mind, and strength. 

We also learn that the Lord is sovereign and supreme over all creation. God owns everything and will use it all to accomplish divine purposes on this earth. 

In addition, we see that God calls people to new work and fresh ministry. The Lord was behind the destruction of the old temple; and when the time was right, God called the people to build a new ministry.

And we learn something about ourselves, as well. God’s people need to hear and respond to God’s call. Haggai put a God-sized vision before the people; he helped them imagine what the new temple would be like – full of God’s glory.

God is doing a new thing. The Lord continues calling people to:

  • Seek first the kingdom of God. (Deuteronomy 4:29; Psalm 63:1; Matthew 6:33; Hebrews 11:6)
  • Love God with whole hearts. (Deuteronomy 6:5, 11:1-22, 19:9, 30:16-20; Matthew 22:37)
  • Love neighbor as we love ourselves. (Leviticus 19:18; Matthew 22:38; Romans 13:9; Galatians 5:14)
  • Make disciples of Christ from all nationalities. (Matthew 28:18-20)
  • Be witnesses to God’s glory in Christ. (Psalm 66:16; Acts 1:8; 2 Timothy 2:2)
  • Obey the Holy Spirit. (Acts 5:31-33; Romans 6:17; Hebrews 5:8-9)

It is good to remember and celebrate past ministries; and it is also good to throw ourselves into the new ministries which God calls us and to build them for God’s glory.

My friends, build it now.

Glory to you, O God, the One who is able to do far beyond all that we could ask or imagine by your divine power at work within us; glory to you, blessed God, in the church and in Christ Jesus for all generations, through the empowering Holy Spirit, forever and always. Amen.

Take the Path of Peace (Zechariah 1:1-17)

Michelangelo’s depiction of the prophet Zechariah, Sistine Chapel, Rome

In the eighth month of the second year of Darius, the word of the Lord came to the prophet Zechariah son of Berekiah, the son of Iddo:

“The Lord was very angry with your ancestors. Therefore tell the people: This is what the Lord Almighty says: ‘Return to me,’ declares the Lord Almighty, ‘and I will return to you,’ says the Lord Almighty. Do not be like your ancestors, to whom the earlier prophets proclaimed: This is what the Lord Almighty says: ‘Turn from your evil ways and your evil practices.’ But they would not listen or pay attention to me, declares the Lord. Where are your ancestors now? And the prophets, do they live forever? But did not my words and my decrees, which I commanded my servants the prophets, overtake your ancestors?

“Then they repented and said, ‘The Lord Almighty has done to us what our ways and practices deserve, just as he determined to do.’”

On the twenty-fourth day of the eleventh month, the month of Shebat, in the second year of Darius, the word of the Lord came to the prophet Zechariah son of Berekiah, the son of Iddo.

During the night I had a vision, and there before me was a man mounted on a red horse. He was standing among the myrtle trees in a ravine. Behind him were red, brown and white horses.

I asked, “What are these, my lord?”

The angel who was talking with me answered, “I will show you what they are.”

Then the man standing among the myrtle trees explained, “They are the ones the Lord has sent to go throughout the earth.”

And they reported to the angel of the Lord who was standing among the myrtle trees, “We have gone throughout the earth and found the whole world at rest and in peace.”

Then the angel of the Lord said, “Lord Almighty, how long will you withhold mercy from Jerusalem and from the towns of Judah, which you have been angry with these seventy years?” So the Lord spoke kind and comforting words to the angel who talked with me.

Then the angel who was speaking to me said, “Proclaim this word: This is what the Lord Almighty says: ‘I am very jealous for Jerusalem and Zion, and I am very angry with the nations that feel secure. I was only a little angry, but they went too far with the punishment.’

“Therefore this is what the Lord says: ‘I will return to Jerusalem with mercy, and there my house will be rebuilt. And the measuring line will be stretched out over Jerusalem,’ declares the Lord Almighty.

“Proclaim further: This is what the Lord Almighty says: ‘My towns will again overflow with prosperity, and the Lord will again comfort Zion and choose Jerusalem.’” (New International Version)

God hulking-out isn’t something you want to see repeated, insisted the prophet.

Zechariah directed his message to the Jews returning from their exile in Babylon. He reminded them that their parents and forebears had been called to repent and return to the Lord. They didn’t. Hence, the Babylonian exile. Big hint from the prophet to the people: Don’t ever do that again. Things will get angry, large, and green if you do.

Zechariah’s generation was being given a chance: To live into God’s covenant and law; to hold fast onto their identity as God’s people.

The people listened to the prophet. They expressed their repentance and a desire to turn from past evil ways and embrace the ways of the Lord. And the returning exiles also acknowledged and accepted God’s judgment. The returning exiles understood that, as a people, they deserve the consequences to centuries of neglecting justice, mercy, and humility.

Every generation of believers must learn from the past. Not only do they need to receive the teachings and traditions of those who went before them, but each generation must also struggle with how to put that teaching and tradition into practice.

The past needs to be squarely faced and deliberately pulled into the present. That is the way a genuine hope is born, giving direction for the future. In other words, old words and ways from the past need new experiences in the present; only by doing this will there be guidance.

Bring in your kingdom so that your will is done on earth as it’s done in heaven. (Matthew 6:10, CEB)

Today’s Old Testament lesson includes the first of eight night visions from the prophet Zechariah. The gist of the first prophetic oracle is a message of assurance and comfort: God will restore. The Lord will renew.

Divine intervention is about to happen in the rebuilding of the temple – a physical example of the spiritual reality that is happening. Just as the ancient temple was being restored for new generations of worshipers, so the people were being renewed to be an example of piety and fidelity to God for millennia to come.

Peace and prosperity will again be realized.

Throughout Scripture, trees are a symbol of a thriving and flourishing life. The myrtle tree is a sign of God’s promise to bring new life, branching out to spread into the next generations. Like all trees, the myrtle needs plenty of moisture when young. Yet, it is distinctive in that the myrtle tree can tolerate drought, grow despite limited soil, and remain hardy when it becomes mature.

Your anger lasts a little while,
but your kindness lasts
    for a lifetime.
At night we may cry,
but when morning comes
    we will celebrate. (Psalm 30:5, CEV)

“Tolerate,” “grow,” and “remain” are anything but passive words. People are more than mere observers. “Repent” and “return” and “renew” are verbs. There is a great deal of activity to do. A divine/human cooperation needs to occur. On God’s end, even the angels get involved in the action. What’s happening here is both heavenly and earthly business.

Relational dynamics between God and God’s people are to be a dialogue and not a one-sided monologue. The Lord and the present generation are to demonstrate for future peoples how peace is actually realized and enjoyed.

The Vision of Zechariah, by Unknown artist, c.1300 C.E., Sicily

Like all biblical visions, Zechariah’s is not readily understandable. Nobody is sure about what the symbolism is behind the vision’s horses. Yet, I’ll venture to say that it’s the colors which are significant: red is the color of action; brown is a color of stability and fertility; and white represents purity and holiness. Red, brown, and white mixed together creates a beige color.

Beige is an earthy and dependable color. It’s an inherently welcoming and calming color, offering warmth and symbolizing harmony and comfort. Together, with the horses we have a representation of strength, stability, and structure. They are signs of peace and rest, of God’s shalom.

Spiritual wholeness, moral integrity, relational harmony, and settled peace don’t just magically happen. 

For the Christian, peace was bought at a price – the blood of Jesus. (Colossians 1:20)

Peace must be both passively received and actively pursued. (Ephesians 4:3)

Practices of peace need to be engrafted into our lives so that we might daily experience it. (Romans 14:13-15:7)

The name “Zechariah” is a Hebrew word meaning, “God remembered.” God has not forgotten divine promises. 

The time has come to take hold of the vision God had from the very beginning to walk with humanity in continual fellowship and happiness in the garden, a place of abundant growth, beauty, and health – a place of peace and rest.

The happiest, fully rested, and most peaceful people and nations on earth continually find a steady stream of joy in their families, their rituals/traditions, and their religion.

To find joy and happiness in life is to find peace and rest. And peace is something to be shared, to be passed onto others.

“The peace of Christ be with you.”

“And also with you.”

Such ritual words and practices are reminders of continually returning to the Lord and finding simplicity and satisfaction in Jesus.

In observing and celebrating the Lord’s Table, we find our penultimate remembrance of how peace was achieved, as well as our supreme participation in the triune God.

Perhaps, then, peace and prosperity will extend their tree-like branches over the earth and into the next generations.

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

Peace before us,
Peace behind us,
Peace under our feet.

Peace within us,
Peace over us,
Let all around us be peace.

Christ before us,
Christ behind us,
Christ under our feet.

Christ within us,
Christ over us,
Let all around us be Christ. – a Navajo Prayer

From Desolation to Restoration (Jeremiah 33:1-13)

While Jeremiah was still locked up in jail, a second Message from God was given to him:

“This is God’s Message, the God who made earth, made it livable and lasting, known everywhere as God: ‘Call to me and I will answer you. I’ll tell you marvelous and wondrous things that you could never figure out on your own.’

“This is what God, the God of Israel, has to say about what’s going on in this city, about the homes of both people and kings that have been demolished, about all the ravages of war and the killing by the Chaldeans, and about the streets littered with the dead bodies of those killed because of my raging anger—about all that’s happened because the evil actions in this city have turned my stomach in disgust.

“But now take another look. I’m going to give this city a thorough renovation, working a true healing inside and out. I’m going to show them life whole, life brimming with blessings. I’ll restore everything that was lost to Judah and Jerusalem. I’ll build everything back as good as new. I’ll scrub them clean from the dirt they’ve done against me. I’ll forgive everything they’ve done wrong, forgive all their rebellions. And Jerusalem will be a center of joy and praise and glory for all the countries on earth. They’ll get reports on all the good I’m doing for her. They’ll be in awe of the blessings I am pouring on her.

“Yes, God’s Message: ‘You’re going to look at this place, these empty and desolate towns of Judah and streets of Jerusalem, and say, “A wasteland. Unlivable. Not even a dog could live here.” But the time is coming when you’re going to hear laughter and celebration, marriage festivities, people exclaiming, “Thank God-of-the-Angel-Armies. He’s so good! His love never quits,” as they bring thank offerings into God’s Temple. I’ll restore everything that was lost in this land. I’ll make everything as good as new.’ I, God, say so.

“God-of-the-Angel-Armies says: ‘This coming desolation, unfit for even a stray dog, is once again going to become a pasture for shepherds who care for their flocks. You’ll see flocks everywhere—in the mountains around the towns of the Shephelah and Negev, all over the territory of Benjamin, around Jerusalem and the towns of Judah—flocks under the care of shepherds who keep track of each sheep.’ God says so. (The Message)

The prophecy of Jeremiah is a large and rather difficult biblical book to read – not because it’s hard to understand, but for the continual words of divine judgment. Jerusalem, the center of the world and the jewel of Judaism, would be destroyed by a pagan army.

This was a very unpopular message in the city of Jerusalem. It was the sort of message which landed Jeremiah in prison, more than once. No one, in any age, wants to hear a steady stream of how their society will be crushed by enemies they despise.

Yet, consistent with all the prophetic books of the Old Testament, judgment and destruction never have the last word. There are rhythms of grace and restoration that move imperceptibly underneath the black crud of worldly injustice. And those movements will eventually create a wave of renewal which can wash away the apathy, anger, and avarice around us.

We, as readers examining the prophecy a millennia and half later, may fail to notice that God’s judgment is no spur of the moment thing. The destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians was centuries in the making.

The patience and continual wooing of the Lord for the people to return to fidelity of worship and practice of justice is what dominates the prophecy – and not some capricious deity who spontaneously flares in anger and scorches the earth.

All we have is now. This present moment is the one we are living. So, instead of worrying about the future – either of getting to heaven, or of avoiding hell – we are to love and serve the Lord in the now, and love our neighbor, in this present time we have to do it.

God will take care of the future. We can trust God to do what is right, just, and fair for ourselves and everyone else.

For the Christian, the gospel of Jesus Christ is a life to be lived, not just a set of rules or rituals to observe or doctrines to believe.

Every spiritual person since the dawn of time has struggled with the temptation to bifurcate the inner and outer self. That is a path of disintegration. It ends in destruction.

Jeremiah’s prophecy is an acknowledgment and naming of doing outward religious practices, while possessing an inward disposition which is very far from God.

The people were practicing “rabbit’s foot” religion, that is, believing that as long as they kept certain observances in place, then that would inoculate them from any harm – and they could do whatever they wanted.

Indeed, their hearts became hardened to the voice of the Lord and the cries of the oppressed. Yet, judgment never has the final say; grace and mercy do.

As bad as things may get, our circumstances are never too deep for God to turn them around. Restoration and renewal are divine specialties. And if a heart becomes so hard as to be petrified, the Lord is able to replace the heart of stone for a heart of flesh.

A dry and inhabitable soul can turn to a lush garden. A desolate life can be transformed to a habitation of justice, righteousness, and peace. The ire and irk of God can change to divine blessing and holy joy.

All spiritual restoration begins with silence… humility… repentance… return….

Renewal is a process, not an event. It is slow and tedious, pedantic and pedestrian. Restoration takes time. It is living one day at a time, putting one foot in front of the other, making daily choices of trust and faith which eventually add up to a beautiful life.

And along the way, the steadfast love of God never fails – always there, always supportive. Like earthly gravity, heavenly love is constant, continually keeping us grounded, even when we don’t acknowledge or understand it.

So, may today, and every day, be for you a walk of faith, trusting in the restorative presence of God to heal and transform pain and hopelessness to peace and well-being. May all desolate souls be restored. Amen.