Isaiah 9:18-10:4 – The Reality in Front of Us

Surely wickedness burns like a fire;
    it consumes briers and thorns,
it sets the forest thickets ablaze,
    so that it rolls upward in a column of smoke.
By the wrath of the Lord Almighty
    the land will be scorched
and the people will be fuel for the fire;
    they will not spare one another.
On the right they will devour,
    but still be hungry;
on the left they will eat,
    but not be satisfied.
Each will feed on the flesh of their own offspring:
    Manasseh will feed on Ephraim, and Ephraim on Manasseh;
    together they will turn against Judah.

Yet for all this, his anger is not turned away,
    his hand is still upraised.

Woe to those who make unjust laws,
    to those who issue oppressive decrees,
to deprive the poor of their rights
    and withhold justice from the oppressed of my people,
making widows their prey
    and robbing the fatherless.
What will you do on the day of reckoning,
    when disaster comes from afar?
To whom will you run for help?
    Where will you leave your riches?
Nothing will remain but to cringe among the captives
    or fall among the slain.

Yet for all this, his anger is not turned away,
    his hand is still upraised. (New International Version)

There are times when God has some very hard things to say.

The Lord does get angry. And that’s a good thing.

The Love/Anger Reality of God

God’s anger and wrath are a form of God’s love. A heartless unloving god is fickle and unconcerned for much of the evil which happens in the world. Conversely, a loving God is not okay with wicked persons having their way. A loving God’s anger is kindled against injustice. A loving God doesn’t long put up with people oppressing other people, and taking advantage of them.

So, this is what the Old Testament prophets are all about – communicating and calling people to change their ways because they are harming others. And when the harming and the hurting is done purposefully and callously, then the ire of a holy God is raised. The Lord will not contend with this sort of attitude and action.

The language of judgment, in today’s Old Testament prophetic lesson, is an invitation for us to take a very hard look at the reality which was responsible for such an angry response from God.

The Social/Economic Reality of Both the Prophet’s World and Today’s World

God expects justice, to have people helping one another thrive and flourish in this life, to be concerned for the common good of all persons, not just some. In Isaiah’s day, all that God saw was greed and selfishness, injustice and corruption. And God was not okay with it. The unjust systems and practices were a failure of the people to live up to the Lord’s expectations for righteous living.

Sadly, issues of justice and righteousness are still relevant in our world today. Throughout the earth, this very day, the powerless are being exploited; the rich get wealthier at the cost of the poor; greed, corruption, outsourcing, and unjust legal systems are the norm and not the exception.

Much of the world gloomily faces racism, poverty, gender injustice, violence, famine, health disparities and inequities. And so called “religious” folk are at the forefront of ensuring that these evils continue to persist. So, why would not a holy God become infuriated at such a situation!?

A 12th century German depiction of Isaiah the prophet

The Religious Reality of Isaiah’s Day and Our Day

The religious reality of Isaiah’s day is not so far off from our own today. People were, and are, engaging in forms of spiritual and/or religious activity while being completely devoid of justice. Folks attend religious gatherings and believe in God – and treat others unjustly. They talk of faith in the Lord, while trusting in wealth and assets.

It was, and is, a world where people bow before their own works and ingenuity, focusing their attention on money and power. It’s a world with no room for the God of the Bible and true divine justice.

Far too many “believers” espouse unethical leaders and turn a blind eye to morally bankrupt leadership. Far too many religious folk want what they want, with no regard for the needs of others.

The Divine Reality of God’s Pathos

We as people need to contend with a God who is a profoundly emotional Being.

God is moved and affected by what happens in the world. The Lord’s anger and judgment is aroused because of God’s love and compassion.

God both binds up the injuries of people, as well as inflicts wounds. This ought not be surprising. After all, we readily understand, through our extensive healthcare systems, that medical interventions and surgeries are needed, and that they hurt.

A God of justice is, of course, angered by ethical violations. The Lord is rightly upset that the world often falls so woefully short of instituting a just social, economic, and political order for all citizens to enjoy.

Everyone must deal with the God who is not a brain-on-a-stick but has a deep heart for people everywhere to experience truth, justice, righteousness, salvation, and love.

Conclusion

Yes, there is a coming reality in which a new world will emerge. For the Christian, this occurs when Christ returns to judge the living and the dead. Complete deliverance from sin, death, and hell shall be realized.

But we aren’t there yet. We still need to cope with the world as it is today, and deal with it’s failures, shortcomings, and sins.

There is currently a massive need to be attentive to the needy, to proclaim the gospel to all nations, and to be involved in reforming unjust systems in our cities, communities, and countries. Salvation is meant for the whole person, not just the spiritual part.

Therefore, we have a choice as to how we will approach the world.

Will we withdraw from it? Will we engage it, only to take advantage of others within it? Or will we participate with God in transforming it?

  • Will we hear the cries of the oppressed?
  • Will we live out God’s commitment to the poor, the weak, and the sick?
  • Will we work for economic and social equity?
  • Will we break the bonds of injustice?
  • Will we help people to reach their full potential?
  • Will we preach good news?
  • Will we suffer with those who suffer and show solidarity with the weak?
  • Will we be truly spiritual folk who invest in the concerns of humanity?
  • Will we take up our cross and follow the Lord in being suffering servants for a lost world in need of God and God’s justice?

The reality in front of us is one which demands confrontation, participation, and reformation. Will you do it?

Blessed and holy God and Father of all, it is your will that all people be gathered together as one family in yourself. Fill the hearts of humanity with the fire of your love and with the desire to ensure justice for all. By sharing the good gifts that you give us, may we secure an equality for all our brothers and sisters throughout the world. May there be an end to division, strife and war. May there be a dawning of a just society built on love and peace. We ask this in the name of Jesus, our Lord. Amen.

Amos 5:10-17 – Work It Out In the Public Square

People hate this kind of talk.
    Raw truth is never popular.
But here it is, bluntly spoken:
    Because you run roughshod over the poor
    and take the bread right out of their mouths,
You’re never going to move into
    the luxury homes you have built.
You’re never going to drink wine
    from the expensive vineyards you’ve planted.
I precisely know the extent of your violations,
    the enormity of your sins. Appalling!
You bully right-living people,
    taking bribes right and left and kicking the poor when they’re down.

Justice is a lost cause. Evil is epidemic.
    Decent people throw up their hands.
Protest and rebuke are useless,
    a waste of breath.

Seek good and not evil—
    and live!
You talk about God, the God-of-the-Angel-Armies,
    being your best friend.
Well, live like it,
    and maybe it will happen.

Hate evil and love good,
    then work it out in the public square.
Maybe God, the God-of-the-Angel-Armies,
    will notice your remnant and be gracious.

Now again, my Master’s Message, God, God-of-the-Angel-Armies:

“Go out into the streets and lament loudly!
    Fill the malls and shops with cries of doom!
Weep loudly, ‘Not me! Not us, Not now!’
    Empty offices, stores, factories, workplaces.
Enlist everyone in the general lament.
    I want to hear it loud and clear when I make my visit.”

God’s Decree. (The Message)

I believe an honest hearing of the prophet Amos would change the world.

I’m not talking about angry ranting which works people into a frenzy of fear and suspicion. I am referring to giving Amos a serious hearing, just like we give the Apostle Paul our focused attention.

Too bad so many people are unfamiliar with this prophet and his message. This unawareness, or even purposeful ignorance, could be one reason why the ancient message of Amos appears as fresh today as it was so long ago.

Poverty has always been with us – but that doesn’t mean we ought to only shrug our shoulders and say, “Meh, what’s a guy to do?” Instead, we can determine to address the issues which create a large class of poor people to begin with. Those issues include malevolence, materialism, and militarism.

Malevolence

The moral compass of many of the earth’s nations is askew, even broken. It needs to be recalibrated to the true north of biblical justice.

Back in the prophet’s day, bullying, bribery, and backstabbing were tools used for malevolent purposes. Those same implements are still being used by some today.

You must not pervert justice or show favor. Do not take a bribe, for bribes blind the eyes of the wise and distort the words of the righteous. (Deuteronomy 16:19, NET)

Those who plant injustice will harvest disaster,
    and their reign of terror will come to an end. (Proverbs 22:8, NLT)

But why would people be so unjust to other people? What would motivate someone to purposefully harm another in this way?…

Materialism

Whenever people have an exorbitant amount of stuff, generosity is typically not their first impulse (Ecclesiastes 5:10). Rather, the extremely rich among us have an equally extreme temptation to hold on tight to their wealth – so much so that money and acquiring more stuff becomes their religion. That’s why Scripture is replete with warnings about money.

Jesus said:

“No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be loyal to the one and have contempt for the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.” (Matthew 6:24, CEB)

“Be on your guard against all kinds of greed, for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.” (Luke 12:15, NRSV)

It’s bad enough when individuals, families, and corporate companies devote themselves to a bloated materialism without regard to the poor; it’s even worse when entire nations, governments, and regions do it. From their perspective, what is the most effective way for them to protect all that stuff and self-interest?

Militarism

Pouring significant amounts of money into maintaining armies to safeguard resources – and the way of life which created those resources – puts the focus off the poor and onto the interests of wealth. It also diverts money which could address problems of poverty and puts it into a massive defense budget.

Throughout the Old Testament, militarism was seen as fundamentally not trusting in God. And the prophets have a well-known term for this: idolatry.

The Lord doesn’t care about
the strength of horses
    or powerful armies.
The Lord is pleased only
with those who worship him
    and trust his love. (Psalm 147:10-11, CEV)

Make sure to not build up a war machine, amassing military horses and chariots. (Deuteronomy 17:16, MSG)

Please don’t hear what I’m not saying. A standing military is a must – I’m just pointing out that we need to know precisely what we’re defending. Are we truly defending the rights of the poor, the disadvantaged, and the needy? Or are we defending someone’s exorbitant wealth?

Work It Out In the Public Square

Policies need to reflect values. Greed can and is legislated as a politic of indifference, whereas generosity can be ensconced with a politic of caring for the common good of all, not just some. This is not namby-pamby liberal drivel – it is paying attention to the biblical text.

Addressing poverty means removing the obstacles of malevolence, materialism, and militarism. And it begins with practicing lament.

The very presence of systemic racism and poverty, ecological devastation, healthcare disparities, economic policies which do not benefit all persons, and distorted notions of nationalism requires not only virtuous policy making, but also demands public lamentation.

Why lament? Because the Lord, the One who observes and sees all the wrong against the most vulnerable of the earth, demands that it be done.

Wherever there is injustice, we need people who will champion the cause of the needy through voicing aloud the deep grief from being squished by the powerful, as well as affirming trust in the Lord.

I’ll never forget the trouble, the utter lostness,
    the taste of ashes, the poison I’ve swallowed.
I remember it all—oh, how well I remember—
    the feeling of hitting the bottom.
But there’s one other thing I remember,
    and remembering, I keep a grip on hope:

God’s loyal love couldn’t have run out,
    his merciful love couldn’t have dried up.
They’re created new every morning.
    How great your faithfulness!
I’m sticking with God (I say it over and over).
    He’s all I’ve got left. (Lamentations 3:19-24, MSG)

O Creator of all living things: We are all hungry in a world full of abundance. The possibilities of food for bodies and souls overflow on this earth. We ask for the grace to see the abundance of our world and enough awareness to acknowledge our sins of greed and fear.

Give us openness of soul, courageous spirits, and willing hearts to be with our sisters and brothers who are hungry and in pain, through Jesus Christ our Lord, who with you and the Holy Spirit are One God, now and forever. Amen.

Amos 2:4-11 – Pay Attention to the Poor

The Poor and Money by Vincent van Gogh, 1882

This is what the Lord says:

“For three sins of Judah,
    even for four, I will not relent.
Because they have rejected the law of the Lord
    and have not kept his decrees,
because they have been led astray by false gods,
    the gods their ancestors followed,
I will send fire on Judah
    that will consume the fortresses of Jerusalem.”

This is what the Lord says:

“For three sins of Israel,
    even for four, I will not relent.
They sell the innocent for silver,
    and the needy for a pair of sandals.
They trample on the heads of the poor
    as on the dust of the ground
    and deny justice to the oppressed.
Father and son use the same girl
    and so profane my holy name.
They lie down beside every altar
    on garments taken in pledge.
In the house of their god
    they drink wine taken as fines.

“Yet I destroyed the Amorites before them,
    though they were tall as the cedars
    and strong as the oaks.
I destroyed their fruit above
    and their roots below.
I brought you up out of Egypt
    and led you forty years in the wilderness
    to give you the land of the Amorites.

“I also raised up prophets from among your children
    and Nazirites from among your youths.
Is this not true, people of Israel?”
declares the Lord. (New International Version)

It’s not a sin to be poor. It is a sin to oppress, take advantage of, or exploit the poor.

Social justice isn’t something fabricated in the minds of progressive Christians. Social justice is biblical and at the heart of all sixteen prophetic books of Holy Scripture’s Old Testament.

The reason the prophets address poverty so often is that God hates injustice. God is not okay with an entire group of disadvantaged people having needed resources beyond arm’s reach – and the Lord’s ire is especially roused whenever the wealthy and powerful extort what little the poor have to begin with.

Even if there are some who tend to believe the poor are poor because of laziness or an unwillingness to work hard, you will not find that idea amongst the biblical prophets. You will, in fact, find just the opposite: fat cats who lie around with their privileged lives, not lifting a finger to help the underprivileged.

The Church does have a role in combating systemic oppression of the poor and needy, and the prophet Amos wants those who claim the name of the Lord to know it.

Amos not only harangued the nations who surrounded Israel and Judah of their sinful stances toward the poor, he leveled the very same message at God’s people who did the same things. Although the Israelites enjoyed a special status with God, that did not mean the Lord had a different set of values or expectations for them when it came to basic human justice.

Mistreating one another is a universal sin and all nations everywhere will be held accountable by God for how they treat the least persons among them. There is such a thing as universal human rights – and the godly person will care about this, at the least, because God cares.

Amos almost exclusively hones-in on the economic sins of the wealthy: taking away needed clothing from those who default on loans; assessing unnecessary and exorbitant fines; taking levies of grain; and living a lavish lifestyle on the backs of the less fortunate.

It was these continually repeated sins against one another which eventually led to both Israel and Judah being conquered by pagan nations and carried into exile.

Today, you will still easily find people being used by others, as if they were mere inhuman machines, here on this earth to make money for those who already have plenty of it. They’d sell their own grandmother if they could get a good price on her. Extortion and oppression are like eating and drinking to them.

Yet, such persons, groups, even entire governments are only stockpiling judgment upon themselves for the God whom they must eventually give an account in how they lived their lives on this earth.

Instead, intentionally paying attention to the poor and treating them with equity will involve the following:

  1. Donating to charitable causes, such as church denominational relief funds, and respected international organizations who can make your contributions count.
  2. Agitating politicians for better policies toward the poor. Writing letters, sending emails, and making phone calls are simple ways of letting your voice be heard in a democratic society.
  3. Learning about worldwide and local poverty. It’s hard not to be involved whenever there is pertinent information. Putting names and faces to struggling people is a must, as well as understanding some of the dynamics that go into poverty.
  4. Raising awareness of significant issues related to poverty and how it impacts the poor. Find others who care about this and share insights and understanding about how to educate others.
  5. Volunteering at a local organization who works with the poor.

There are many more ways to make a difference. As biblically informed people, care of the poor and being concerned for issues of poverty is a must, because the Lord is a Just God with a heart of justice for the disadvantaged, underprivileged, and needy among us.

Now if there are some poor persons among you, say one of your fellow Israelites in one of your cities in the land that the Lord your God is giving you, don’t be hard-hearted or tightfisted toward your poor fellow Israelites. To the contrary! Open your hand wide to them. You must generously lend them whatever they need. (Deuteronomy 15:7-8, CEB)

Just and merciful God, you give honor to the least, the forgotten, the overlooked, and the misjudged.

You give first place to the last, the left behind, the misunderstood, and the undervalued.

You give a warm welcome to the lost, the orphaned, the abandoned, and the destitute.

Help us, your people, to be your ears in listening to their cries.

Help us to be your voice speaking words of encouragement, affirmation, and acceptance.

Help us to be your feet walking beside those in need; and your hands to clothe, feed and shelter them.

You came for the least, the lost and last of this world. Lord, in your mercy, hear our prayer. Amen.

Psalm 144:9-15 – Rescued from Evil

Rescued by Rodney J. Parrott

O God, let me sing a new song to you,
    let me play it on a twelve-string guitar—
A song to the God who saved the king,
    the God who rescued David, his servant.

Rescue me from the enemy sword,
    release me from the grip of those barbarians
Who lie through their teeth,
    who shake your hand
    then knife you in the back.

Make our sons in their prime
    like sturdy oak trees,
Our daughters as shapely and bright
    as fields of wildflowers.
Fill our barns with great harvest,
    fill our fields with huge flocks;
Protect us from invasion and exile—
    eliminate the crime in our streets.

How blessed the people who have all this!
How blessed the people who have God for God! (The Message)

Evil lurks everywhere. It resides in the human heart, hidden in the dark shadows, coming out sideways through shameful lies and guilty actions. Evil is also found throughout the world in every institution, organization, and group, ensconced as systemic injustice – hoarding resources for the powerful at the expense of the powerless.

Since there is wickedness found in all places and with all people, evil needs to be dealt with and expunged from both heinous hearts as well as the hoarding habitations of injustice. Part of the solution is to do away with all obstacles which stand in the way of human flourishing.

To be sure, the heart of humanity must be dealt with and be the focus of change. Yet, if we only focus one-dimensionally on evil, it will persist, and even grow into monstrous proportions, unless we equally direct our right and just efforts on institutional and systemic evil.

People and their institutions need deliverance from the power of evil in the world. And for that to happen, the hindrances and handicaps to human thriving must be eliminated.

Our entire concept of salvation needs a fuller scope. Not only do individuals need personal deliverance from sin, death, and hell, so do entire societies. Complete systemic rescue from oppressive obstacles is a must. Far too many people in this fallen world are weighed down from institutional sin.

Christ obeyed God our Father and gave himself as a sacrifice for our sins to rescue us from this evil world.

Galatians 1:4, CEV

To place this in a different context, the genius of the American experiment was that the founding fathers (and mothers!) of the United States created a political and societal system which sought to eliminate class distinctions and allowed people of lower means to achieve land ownership and business acumen simply through hard work and thrift.

Unfortunately, the experiment only extended largely to white men. Native American and African American people still had huge systemic obstacles to overcome. And the new republic had different expectations for it’s women. It took a Civil War and decades of grueling work to address political and social change (not to mention religious). We are still laboring to truly give liberty and justice to all and achieve the ideal of an egalitarian nation.

We, as both individuals and citizens, need divine intervention through deliverance. Like Gilligan and the crew of the Minnow stranded on a deserted island, we seek to be rescued – knowing we need help beyond ourselves for salvation.

Rescue us from the evil one.

Matthew 6:13, NRSV

The psalmist looked ahead in hope, convinced that a good God will deliver and provide good people with everything they need to thrive and flourish in this life, and in the life to come.

If God doesn’t fight our overwhelming battles for us, we are lost. This present darkness, this ancient and contemporary evil, is an extremely powerful foe. However, the Lord is greater and will have the last word.

Christianity asserts that Jesus is the pioneer of our salvation and the once for all answer to the problem of evil for both the world and the human heart. Christ, in other words, is the fulfillment of the psalmist’s prayers for deliverance, health, and hope.

In his earthly ministry, Jesus did not give explanations for our pain and sorrow. Instead, Jesus comes where our pain is most acute and takes it upon himself – bringing healing and hope. The Lord tackles evil, not by having a Zoom conference on the subject of wickedness, but by allowing evil to do its worst to him. Christ exhausts evil by draining it of its power, emerging resurrected with new life for all.

The good news is this: Jesus is Lord and has defeated the powers of evil. Now, reform can occur. Hearts can change. Systems can be revamped. God’s new world has begun.

God rescued us from the control of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of the Son he loves. He set us free through the Son and forgave our sins.

Colossians 1:13-14, CEB

I, personally, am a Christian because I believe God is the one who satisfies the passion for justice, the longing for spirituality, the hunger for relationship, and the yearning for beauty. I see God in Jesus of Nazareth, the world’s true Lord.

Hope, like the psalmist expressed, is what you get when you realize a different worldview is possible. Hope springs to life when those experiencing and feeling the brunt of evil in the world become acutely aware that the rich, the powerful, and the unscrupulous are not the ones really in charge.

“Our task as image-bearing, God-loving, Christ-shaped, Spirit-filled Christians, following Christ and shaping our world, is to announce redemption to a world that has discovered its fallenness, to announce healing to a world that has discovered its brokenness, to proclaim love and trust to a world that knows only exploitation, fear and suspicion…”

N. T. Wright

May you know the place and the person of rescue from evil. And may you be buoyant in faith, confident in hope, and overflowing with love.