Psalm 36:5-10 – Steadfast Love

Your steadfast love, O Lord, extends to the heavens,
    your faithfulness to the clouds.
Your righteousness is like the mighty mountains,
    your judgments are like the great deep;
    you save humans and animals alike, O Lord.

How precious is your steadfast love, O God!
    All people may take refuge in the shadow of your wings.
They feast on the abundance of your house,
    and you give them drink from the river of your delights.
For with you is the fountain of life;
    in your light we see light.

O continue your steadfast love to those who know you,
    and your salvation to the upright of heart! (New Revised Standard Version)

Love suffers. Every parent knows this. Because of a parent’s committed and faithful love toward a child, they feel not only the joys but also the sorrows and pain of their children. I can say that this feeling does not go away, even with adult children. And it is compounded with grandchildren. Just as our love is big enough to hold multiple children and grandchildren, so our capacity for experiencing deep emotion for their welfare is equally large.

True love is sacrificial. It is willing to suffer anything on behalf of the beloved. God’s steadfast love is immensely large, holding both the joy of witnessing our lives as well as the pain of watching us make unhealthy decisions which damage us and each other.

God’s people, walking in the way of love, quickly discover that it is simultaneously walking in the way of suffering. From Old Testament times through the New Testament and into the present day, the faithful have always experienced suffering as a central part of their piety and devotion in showing steadfast love. 

The medieval mystics of the Church understood well the connection between suffering and love. They could not imagine a Christian life without hardship, difficulty, and persecution. Thomas à Kempis, a sort of pastor to pastors, wrote in the fifteenth century these words:

“Sometimes it is to our advantage to endure misfortunes and adversities, for they make us enter into our inner selves and acknowledge that we are in a place of exile and that we ought not to rely on anything in this world.  And sometimes it is good for us to suffer contradictions and know that there are those who think ill and badly of us, even though we do our best and act with every good intention….  When men ridicule and belittle us, we should turn to God, who sees our innermost thoughts, and seek His judgment….  It is when a man of good will is distressed, or tempted, or afflicted with evil that he best understands the overwhelming need he has for God, without whom he can do nothing….  It is in such times of trial that he realizes that perfect security and full peace are not to be found in this world.”

Thomas à Kempis, The Imitation of Christ

And yet, it is because of love that suffering is transformed and endured as something wholly other than sheer pain or hurt. Thomas à Kempis went on to say:

“Love is a mighty power, a great and complete good; Love alone lightens every burden and makes the rough places smooth. It bears every hardship as though it were nothing and renders all bitterness sweet and acceptable. The love of Jesus is noble and inspires us to great deeds; it moves us always to desire perfection. Love aspires to high things and is held back by nothing base. Love longs to be free, a stranger to every worldly desire, lest its inner vision become dimmed, and lest worldly self-interest hinder it, or ill-fortune cast it down…. Love knows no limits, but ardently transcends all bounds. Love feels no burden, takes no account of toil, attempts things beyond its strength; love sees nothing as impossible, for it feels able to achieve all things. Love therefore does great things; it is strange and effective; while he who lacks love faints and fails.”

Thomas à Kempis, The Imitation of Christ

In this season of Epiphany, we remember that Jesus is the light of the world. God became flesh and blood to experience the full range of the human condition – both joys and sorrows in a love so committed to us that it led to a cruel cross of suffering.

Salvation has come to all peoples because of God’s steadfast love – a love that never lets go no matter the circumstances.

Almighty God, whose Son our Savior Jesus Christ is the light of the world: Grant that your people, illumined by your Word and Sacrament, may shine with the radiance of Christ’s glory, that he may be known, worshiped, and obeyed to the ends of the earth; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns, one God, now and forever. Amen.

Matthew 5:10-12 – Blessed are Those Who are Persecuted Because of Righteousness

Painting by Hyatt Moore

“You’re blessed when your commitment to God provokes persecution. The persecution drives you even deeper into God’s kingdom.

“Not only that—count yourselves blessed every time people put you down or throw you out or speak lies about you to discredit me. What it means is that the truth is too close for comfort, and they are uncomfortable. You can be glad when that happens—give a cheer, even! —for though they don’t like it, I do! And all heaven applauds. And know that you are in good company. My prophets and witnesses have always gotten into this kind of trouble. (The Message)

No matter our vocation or avocation, what we do, or don’t do, what we say, or don’t say, we will not avoid insult and persecution. Just ask Jesus.

The issue is not if we will suffer but why we suffer. The Apostle Peter devoted his first epistle to helping Christians deal with their suffering. He made his point clear about suffering: 

If you suffer, it should not be as a murderer or thief or any other kind of criminal, or even as a meddler. However, if you suffer as a Christian, do not be ashamed, but praise God that you bear that name. (1 Peter 4:15-16, NIV)

That’s Peter’s way of saying, “Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness.”  We will endure abuse, in some form, from others. So, let’s make sure it’s for being characterized by Christ’s Beatitudes, and not for being obnoxious.

Christ’s followers take up their cross and share with him in the world’s hatred directed toward us. This kind of living is blessed and receives the approval of God.

What is persecution?

Persecution is not only physical abuse. It is also verbal abuse, ridicule, slander, discrimination, and generally making one’s life harder just because of a commitment to Christ. Persecution is not necessarily a sign of doing something wrong. It could be that something right is being done. 

Thomas à Kempis (1380-1471) wrote what has become one of the best-selling Christian books of all-time, The Imitation of Christ. Thomas had the right perspective on the subject of persecution:

“Sometimes it is to our advantage to endure misfortunes and adversities, for they make us enter into our inner selves and acknowledge that we are in a place of exile and that we ought not to rely on anything in this world.  And sometimes it is good for us to suffer contradictions and know that there are those who think ill and badly of us, even though we do our best and act with every good intention.  Such occasions are aids in keeping us humble and shield us from pride. When men ridicule and belittle us, we should turn to God, who sees our innermost thoughts, and seek His judgment.

Therefore, we should so firmly establish ourselves in God that we have no need to seek much human encouragement. It is when a person of good will is distressed, or tempted, or afflicted with evil thoughts, that they best understand the overwhelming need for God, without whom we can do nothing. While enduring these afflictions they take themself to prayer with sighs and groans; they grow tired of this life and wish to be undone in order to live with Christ. It is in such times of trial they realize that perfect security and full peace are not to be found in this world.”

Insult, negativity, and verbal abuse can trip us up and discourage us. It doesn’t feel good to be disliked. Trouble and conflict is something most of us would like to avoid, as much as possible.

We might be able to steel ourselves for a large persecution against denying Christ and would be willing to die a martyr’s death to hold on to our faith. Yet, conversely, we may:

  • Crumble in a heap if we think someone is mad or displeased with us.
  • Worry that our lives will get complicated and difficult if we uphold the righteousness and justice of God.
  • Be afraid of others who might think bad of us if we showed mercy by standing with the unpopular person or if we actively and overtly engage in peacemaking.
George Reeves in The Adventures of Superman (1952-1958)

It is the “small” abuses which can cause us so much grief. We are determined to stand tall when the bullets of blatant, oppressive, and systemic persecution comes. Then, when the gun is thrown at us, we may flinch, duck, and fret over one person being upset.

Back when I was a kid, I watched old reruns of the original Superman television series. In more than one episode, Superman stood tall and faced the person peppering him with bullets. Then, when the bullets ran out, the villain threw his gun at Superman, who then promptly flinched and ducked the gun!

It is not our job to ensure that everyone is happy – it is our business to do God’s will and to embody Christ’s Beatitudes. Our calling as believers in Jesus is not to worry about what people (including family) are going to think if we live a humble, righteous life of mourning over the world’s sins, exhibiting a meek and gentle spirit, standing for grace when others want blood, refusing to defile our hearts with impure thoughts and actions, and standing up to do something about the injustice around us.

How and why do respond to persecution?

            The proper response to persecution is joy! There are two reasons why we can face persecution and come away glad instead cringing and discouraged:

  1. Because being characterized by the Beatitudes of Jesus brings heavenly reward. Show me a person who puts all their eggs in the earthly basket, and I’ll show you a person who is never satisfied and constantly unhappy. Show me a person who lives to please God and pursues the blessing of Christ, accepting any flak from others, and I’ll show you a person who is inwardly rejoicing that they are a Christian, loved by God, and counting it a privilege to suffer for the Name of Jesus. (Acts 5:27-29, 40-42)
  2. Because we are in good company. God’s people throughout history have endured the same kinds of sufferings and received a Christian purple heart award. We are not just to face persecution with a stoic, grind-it-out mentality, but with rejoicing! (Hebrews 11:36-40)

Who does the persecuting?

            The ones who persecuted the prophets were religious folks. I wish I could say the worst persecution I ever received was from evil people who live ungodly lives. However, the most insult, hardship, and slander I have ever endured has come from the lips and the efforts of people who claim the name of Christ. The reason abuse happens is because there are people not characterized by the Beatitudes of Jesus, so they become the persecutors, instead of the persecuted. 

            All the sufferings and hardships of Jesus, all the persecution he faced did not come from the world, but from his own people, including a person from his inner circle of disciples. Although the church, throughout its history, has done immense good, it also has had a chronic problem of shooting its wounded.

Far too many people have adopted a legalistic form of righteousness that focuses on outward conformity and myriad rules and regulations. Abundant grace is needed. Not judgment.

Conclusion

If we are persecuted, let’s make sure it is because we are advocating for others who need mercy and are facing injustice; addressing the brokenness of this world through specifically Christian lenses; and desiring the applause of heaven.

See if you can hear the Beatitudes in what the Apostle Peter, had to say about persecution:

For it is commendable if someone bears up under the pain of unjust suffering because they are conscious of God. But how is it to your credit if you receive a beating for doing wrong and endure it? But if you suffer for doing good and you endure it, this is commendable before God. To this you were called, because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps. (1 Peter 2:19-21, NIV)

Be like-minded and sympathetic. Love one another. Be compassionate and humble. Do not repay evil with evil or insult with insult. On the contrary, repay evil with blessing, because to this you were called so that you may inherit a blessing. For,

“Whoever would love life
    and see good days
must keep their tongue from evil
    and their lips from deceitful speech.
They must turn from evil and do good;
    they must seek peace and pursue it.

 For the eyes of the Lord are on the righteous
    and his ears are attentive to their prayer,
but the face of the Lord is against those who do evil.” (1 Peter 3:8-12, NIV)

Dear friends, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that has come on you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice inasmuch as you participate in the sufferings of Christ, so that you may be overjoyed when his glory is revealed. If you are insulted because of the name of Christ, you are blessed, for the Spirit of glory and of God rests on you. (1 Peter 4:12-14, NIV)

May you know the blessing of solidarity with Christ through the afflictions of this present life.

A Crippling Grace

Jacob Wrestling the Angel by Karen Laub-Novak
Jacob Wrestling the Angel by Karen Laub-Novak (1937-2009)

Confrontation and struggle were a way of life for me in my first solo pastorate.  In the first six weeks of being in the church I faced every kind of sin imaginable, to the point that my mentor in the faith recommended I take some time off. I had not even been there for two months!  Although that was a difficult time, the greatest struggle was with God himself and feeling like my prayers were doing nothing but bouncing off the ceiling.  In fact, I spent several years of my life in an extended wrestling match with God.  He touched me and crippled me by his grace, reminding me how much he is in control.  Since that time, I walk with a limp that is not visible – an invisible limp which reminds me I am a different person – one who knows Jesus better and is much more at peace with life.

If we do not wrestle with God in the stressful times of our lives, we will have difficulty discovering what genuine humility is, how much we need the Holy Spirit, and the grace that can be ours to face the rest of our lives.  Five hundred years ago Thomas à Kempis wrote to new priests entering ministry with this advice:

“We should so firmly establish ourselves in God that we have no need to seek much human encouragement.  It is when a man of good will is distressed or tempted, or afflicted with evil thoughts, that he best understands the overwhelming need he has for God, without whom he can do nothing.  While enduring these afflictions he takes himself to prayer with sighs and groans; he grows tired of this life and wishes to die so that he could be undone to live with Christ.  It is in such times of trial that he realizes that perfect security and full peace are not to be found in this world.”

The Old Testament patriarch, Jacob, was worried and stressed.  He knew he had deceived his brother Esau many years earlier to gain their father’s blessing.  Now Jacob is about to meet Esau after all these years, and he is downright afraid for himself and his large family.  So, he divided them up into two groups, thinking that if Esau were to attack, the other group could escape. The night before the big stressful meeting, Jacob sent his wives and family across a tributary of the Jordan River, the Jabbok, and spent the night alone wrestling with God. (Genesis 32:22-31)

God will put us in life-compromising positions to create divine encounters so that we will walk away changed.  Those events usually come in the form of engaging God with all the questions and difficulties of an incredibly stressful situation.  The inner change that occurs comes in the form of a new identity, a new limp, and a renewed understanding of God’s grace. A new confidence arises, convinced that through disability and weakness we are strong and able.

Jacob Wrestling with the Angel by Lippy Lipshitz
Jacob Wrestling with the Angel by Israel Isaac Lipshitz (1903-1980)

There is a good deal of symbolism happening in the story of Jacob wrestling with the angel of God.  First, take note that this Scripture story raises more questions than it answers, such as: Who was the man Jacob wrestled? Was he God, an angel, or someone else? Why have a wrestling match? What in the world is going on here?  The unanswered questions are symbolic of the reality that we do not and probably will not get the clarity we are looking for in our struggles with God.  Sometimes we might not even know it is God whom we are wrestling with.  It is quite possible where we see God estranged from us, he really has us in the grip of grace and will not let go.

Second, Jacob got up during the night, representing his dark night of the soul and struggle with the circumstance he must face.  Jacob was left alone with no one to deceive (his typical modus operandi) which is symbolic of his great need – he had no “tricks up his sleeve” and had nowhere to turn but to God.  Jacob was asked by his wrestling opponent what his name is. Jacob’s answer is a humble one, confessing who he really is (Jacob means “schemer” or “deceiver”).  Jacob asked for a blessing, which in itself is an act of humility because it is an honest profession that he lacks something necessary for life that he cannot provide on his own through any kind of ingenuity on his part.

Third, Jacob asked for God’s name – and got no answer to his question, no clarity, and no satisfaction.  This is deeply symbolic of the fact that God is mysterious, and we will not always get the answers to our questions we want.  God will not kowtow to our puny attempts at controlling him.  Jacob would not let the wrestling match end and held on, just like he grasped the heel of his brother Esau at their birth.  This is a symbolic reference to Jacob’s stubbornness which was redeemed and transformed into tenacity, rather than a manipulation of people to get what he wanted.

Fourth, God renamed Jacob, “Israel.”  Jacob is now distinguished from the old deceiver with a new identity.  Israel literally means “God fights” which is a reference of hope for Jacob’s descendants.  That Jacob struggled with God and was able to walk away from it is not really a statement of physical victory so much as a reference to Jacob’s having overcome his constant fear and need for control which prompted his continual trickery.

Jacob Wrestles the Angel by Christina Mattison Ebert
Jacob Wrestles the Angel by Christina Mattison Ebert

Fifth, Jacob’s limp is a permanent sign of God’s grace to Jacob. God is with him and his descendants.  Jacob is a different person having encountered God, and the limp is a continual reminder God changed his life forever – Jacob will never be the same after this.  Ironically, the limp made Jacob stronger, not weaker.  From this point forward in Jacob’s life, he is mindful of his limitations and that God is the One who will arise to fight, protect, and carry on the covenant promises.  There is no longer any need or even desire to scheme to accomplish anything.

It will be difficult to find grace apart from wrestling with God in the painful situations of life.  It is in such times we must be crippled by grace.  We need to be willing to fight with God. It is necessary to get in the match and struggle with God rather than worry within ourselves or just pretend everything is okay so that we will avoid the hard contest in front of us.

Has God left a permanent mark on you?  Do you carry a limp from him?  What is your name?  How does God identify you?  Our great need is not in being clever, smart, or working harder; it is God’s grace that we all need.  As a kid, when my parents left the house, my brother and I would rearrange the furniture so that we could have a good-solid-knock-down-drag-out wrestling match.  Since my brother was older, it usually ended badly for me with a pile-driver that left me incapacitated.  It is seriously a miracle that I am still alive after being dropped on my head so many times.

Whenever Christians approach the Lord’s Table, we are reminded of the Son who wrestled with the Father in prayer in the garden of Gethsemane and came away confident of facing a cruel cross so that we might have life.  The Lord Jesus carries with him even now the reminders of his suffering – the marks on his hands and his feet from a crucifixion that accomplished deliverance from sin on our behalf.  The elements of bread and cup are deeply symbolic reminders of what Jesus did as the cost for our salvation.  And they are further reminders that just as we eat this bread and drink this cup we will drink again with Jesus at the end of the age.  It is faith in Jesus alone that creates and secures for us a transformed life so that we can share in a crippling grace from him forever.