Isaiah 61:1-7 – Better Days Ahead

The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on me,
    because the Lord has anointed me
    to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted,
    to proclaim freedom for the captives
    and release from darkness for the prisoners,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor
    and the day of vengeance of our God,
to comfort all who mourn,
    and provide for those who grieve in Zion—
to bestow on them a crown of beauty
    instead of ashes,
the oil of joy
    instead of mourning,
and a garment of praise
    instead of a spirit of despair.
They will be called oaks of righteousness,
    a planting of the Lord
    for the display of his splendor.

They will rebuild the ancient ruins
    and restore the places long devastated;
they will renew the ruined cities
    that have been devastated for generations.
Strangers will shepherd your flocks;
    foreigners will work your fields and vineyards.
And you will be called priests of the Lord,
    you will be named ministers of our God.
You will feed on the wealth of nations,
    and in their riches you will boast.

Instead of your shame
    you will receive a double portion,
and instead of disgrace
    you will rejoice in your inheritance.
And so you will inherit a double portion in your land,
    and everlasting joy will be yours. (New International Version)

The message of better days ahead was a breath of fresh air to a beaten down people.

Just today I was speaking with an intensive care nurse who said, “It’s one thing to have a hard day, or know a few weeks will be difficult. It’s altogether another thing when it seems there’s no end to the hard deaths we experience.” Whenever things have gone sideways for so long, we find our lives needing restoration and renewal.

That was the situation for the ancient Israelites. They needed deliverance from their awful predicament. They longed for healing, freedom, and comfort from their grief. After centuries of a downward spiral into disobedience and going their own way, the people found themselves bereft of resources.

After you have suffered for a little while, the God of all grace, the one who called you into his eternal glory in Christ Jesus, will himself restore, empower, strengthen, and establish you.

1 Peter 5:10, CEB

The people needed the year of the Lord’s favor – the year of Jubilee. The Jubilee was supposed to occur every fiftieth year of Israel’s existence in the Promised Land. For forty-nine years there were individuals and families who either incurred debt, indentured themselves into servitude for survival, landed in prison, or ended up laboring in the fields they once owned.

According to the Law, after the forty-nine years, on the fiftieth year, the debts were erased, slaves were freed, fields allowed to rest, and the land restored back to its original owners. God’s deliverance is meant to be not only spiritual, but also very tangible and real.

Salvation is not just otherworldly – it’s also a transformation of the world we inhabit in the here and now.

The need for good news presupposes there’s been some bad news happening. The Lord deliberately gives attention to the oppressed, the brokenhearted, the captives, the prisoners, those who mourn, and the faint of heart. God is concerned for the lowly and the weak. 

It’s significant to note that Israel found themselves in such need not necessarily because they were always victims of adverse situations, but also because they failed to obey the stipulations of their covenant with God. 

We have no actual evidence the Israelites even practiced the Jubilee. After entering the Promised Land, by the time fifty years came down the pike, they had slid so far down the spiritual drain, it was completely off their radar to practice a Jubilee.

It seems no one had any intention of forgiving debts, freeing their indentured servants, giving back the land to original owners, or providing the land itself with a Sabbath rest. 

To not practice the Jubilee was to rob people of their land and practice injustice. But God loves justice and hates robbery. God pays attention to those who are not receiving very real and tangible needs for their lives. So, God speaks words of hope and deliverance for those in circumstances beyond their ability to cope.

The first few verses of today’s Old Testament lesson were the words Jesus read in the synagogue when he began his earthly ministry. Christianity observes that Jesus Christ is the ultimate fulfillment of this promise for deliverance and provision. He came to establish a Jubilee celebration that would never end.

It might be easy for some folks to overlook these verses as pertaining to them. After all, they are blessed, both materially and spiritually. They can always identify people who are in much more need than they are. But we must recognize that the maladies of our hearts are very real. There are specific conditions in our lives that leave us, not just them,in bondage and in need of restoration, renewal, and revitalization, just like the Israelites of old. 

We must name those maladies which are stuffed away in a closet of our heart, such as: the love of things and money; severed relationships; old grudges; hidden addictions; domestic violence; denial of depression; secret affairs; cutting; fear; anger; greed; and hatred. Outward smiles and small talk may hide the truth from others, but they do nothing to hide from a God for whom everything is laid bare.

It’s okay to be a glowstick, sometimes we need to break before we shine.

The good news is not just something for someone else who has “obvious” needs. The gospel must touch our lives and bring us freedom so that we can pass on that very real 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 burdens so deep within that we are blind to others.

On the other hand, we may too easily read today’s lesson in a manner it was not meant to be heard, as if we are more in need than we actually are, hearing it something like this: The Spirit of consumer choices is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me to preach good news to the middle-class. He has sent me to bind up the half-hearted, to proclaim more options for the limited, and release from Black Friday for the buyers, to proclaim the year of the Cyber-Monday. 

Perhaps we may not be so crass as to say that out loud, but we might have the tendency to misinterpret Bible passages so as to avoid our own great poverty of heart.

Whichever lens we tend to look at Isaiah’s prophecy, when we become experts at ignoring our needs and emotions, we fail to see the year of Jubilee. The stark reality is that no matter who we are, we need a biblical Jubilee.

Many people are either one paycheck, one prodigal kid, one mental health diagnosis, one serious illness, one drink, one affair, or one bad decision away from being the people we typically identify as in need – the ones that bad things happen to – the ones we do not want as next door neighbors.

We may not yet be vulnerable enough to admit our situation. So, we keep practicing the denial of our spiritual poverty. But everyone knows what a broken heart is. Everybody has a bondage they don’t want to admit. All people need renewal and restoration.

If we believe that tomorrow will be better, we can bear a hardship today.

How, then, shall we live?

Turn from the things which cause us poverty and bondage and turn toward delighting in the Lord your God. Rejoice, because God will make a sprout come up. God will cause us to grow. God will rebuild our ruined souls. God will restore the places of our lives that have been devastated. God will even renew the places that haven’t seen renewal for generations. It begins with you and me allowing the justice of God to work within us.

God can neither bring comfort to those who don’t mourn, nor turn grief into joy unless there is an acknowledgment of a dire situation. If we want to be an oak of righteousness, then there must be a confession of despair and an allowance of God’s justice through Jesus Christ to work its way in us.

Let us envision Jesus coming into our lives and replacing a tattered hat of grief with a crown of beauty. Picture the Lord placing on us a garment of praise to replace those stinky clothes of grumbling. Allow your life to display the grace of God in Christ, since we have been profoundly touched by the justice of God.

Lord Jesus, Carpenter and King, be merciful to the multitudes who today bear the indignities of injustice everywhere. Raise up leaders in every land dedicated to your righteous standards of order, equity, and justice. Grant to us the grace to fulfill our vocation of being loyal to kingdom ethics. Sharpen our intellects to pierce the pettiness of prejudice; to perceive the beauty of human fellowship. Guide our minds to a meaningful understanding of the problems of the poor, the oppressed, the unemployed, and the needy. Incline our hearts toward them, as is your heart, O Lord. May we hunger and thirst after justice always and do it in the power of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Luke 11:33-36 – Life Goals

Photo by Taryn Elliott on Pexels.com

“No one lights a lamp and puts it in a place where it will be hidden, or under a bowl. Instead, they put it on its stand, so that those who come in may see the light. Your eye is the lamp of your body. When your eyes are healthy, your whole body also is full of light. But when they are unhealthy, your body also is full of darkness. See to it, then, that the light within you is not darkness. Therefore, if your whole body is full of light, and no part of it dark, it will be just as full of light as when a lamp shines its light on you.” (New International Version)

We don’t typically frame our words in a phrase like, “Your eye is the lamp of the body.” The idea of healthy or unhealthy eyes as determining how well we are doing might seem weird or awkward to us. We need to keep in mind that Jesus the Jew communicated in distinctly Jewish ways. Speech was often expressed in metaphors and word pictures. 

The word “body” serves as a way of saying “life” and the word “eye” represents our contemporary word “goal.” So, then, let’s restate the verse: “Your goals determine the direction of your life. When your goals are good, your entire life is healthy, but when your goals are bad, it messes up your life.”

Our goals, whether stated or unstated, set the focus and direction of our lives. If the orientation of our lives is the pursuit of selfish gain and temporary satisfaction, then we will move in that direction, and it will not end well. However, if our goals are toward God and the accomplishment of God’s will, then we will be light for the world. It’s all a matter of focus and where we set our attention.

But more than anything else, put God’s work first and do what he wants. Then the other things will be yours as well.

Jesus (Matthew 6:33, CEV)

In our goal setting, we are to be careful, deliberate, and sensitive to the ways of Jesus. That means Christians will focus on the kind of people they want to be, that is, like Jesus Christ. Instead of simply making big resolutions, we can implement small decisions, practiced every day, which will help us grow spiritually.

For example, if we have some besetting sin which tends to dog us, we might try to summon the willpower and energy to take it on. On some days, that works. On most days, it doesn’t. That’s because if we maintain the same daily habits that led to being ensnared in sin, we’ll continually be looking for that unusual burst of energy to overcome that sin.

We need a new system of living. If we imagine our lives as a house, and a room in your house needs a complete restoration and makeover, it won’t do to enthusiastically rearrange the furniture. It’s a superficial goal which doesn’t address the systemic change of habits needed to thoroughly reform that area of your life.

And if we try and change our results, our sinful actions, chronic failure is likely in our future. What we really need to change are the systems that cause those results. When we solve problems at the results level, it’s only a temporary fix.

In order to have some permanent improvement, we need to solve problems at the systems level. That’s why problems like racism, poverty, hunger, and a thousand other issues will never be truly solved unless there is a complete transformation of the systems which keep people locked into those tragic situations.

We need some good healthy biblical goals. And we equally need a reformation of habits to actually realize those worthy goals.

Our goals need not be big and audacious; they just need to be consistent with living the Christian life according to the words and ways of Jesus. That means choosing one thing and ruthlessly eliminating everything else. We don’t really need more time to accomplish the will of God; we simply need to decide that we are following Jesus. Spiritual growth and maturity happen not with more but with less.

Jesus said, “I am the true grapevine, and my Father is the gardener. He cuts off every branch of mine that doesn’t produce fruit, and he prunes the branches that do bear fruit so they will produce even more.” (John 15:1-2, NLT)

Proper goals bring us into the light. And when we establish a routine rule of daily life – small practices of faith done every day – then our light can shine in the darkness of the world.

Loving Lord Jesus, help me to set my life’s gaze on the living and doing of your teaching. Enable me to set godly and worthy goals and grant me the power to see them realized through your Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Isaiah 11:1-9 – A Vision of Hope and Peace

The Peaceable Kingdom by Edward Hicks, 1826

A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse;
    from his roots a Branch will bear fruit.
The Spirit of the Lord will rest on him—
    the Spirit of wisdom and of understanding,
    the Spirit of counsel and of might,
    the Spirit of the knowledge and fear of the Lord—
and he will delight in the fear of the Lord.

He will not judge by what he sees with his eyes,
    or decide by what he hears with his ears;
but with righteousness he will judge the needy,
    with justice he will give decisions for the poor of the earth.
He will strike the earth with the rod of his mouth;
    with the breath of his lips he will slay the wicked.
Righteousness will be his belt
    and faithfulness the sash around his waist.

The wolf will live with the lamb,
    the leopard will lie down with the goat,
the calf and the lion and the yearling together;
    and a little child will lead them.
The cow will feed with the bear,
    their young will lie down together,
    and the lion will eat straw like the ox.
The infant will play near the cobra’s den,
    and the young child will put its hand into the viper’s nest.
They will neither harm nor destroy
    on all my holy mountain,
for the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the Lord
    as the waters cover the sea. (New International Version)

In some quarters of Christianity, the church exists as a mere stump of its former existence. In many Christians’ daily experience the Spirit has been supplanted by individual ingenuity, hard work, and getting ahead through accumulation of more and more. Basic Christian spirituality is a mere shadow of its former influence. If Christians desire the Spirit of the Lord to rest upon them, they will seek Christ as of foremost importance.  

Indeed, it is when we are worn down to a stump and have no ability to grow or sustain life anymore that God enters, specializing in giving hope to the hopeless, justice for the poor, wisdom to the confused, and peace to all who desire a harmonious world.

In the awful feelings of helplessness and hopelessness, a faint sign of life can be seen. A fresh shoot becomes discernible. Could there be possibility amidst impossible circumstances? Can there be life again? Do I dare hope again? Will things really change, and do so for the better?

The answer is “yes.” For where the Spirit of the Lord blows there is the force of resurrection power, spiritual energy, and fresh courage. Where others see only the impossible, the believer has a capacity of faith to see the possible. The Spirit’s force generates possibility where none existed before. When the breath of God whispers to the sprout in the stump, pessimistic despair turns to optimistic hope, even joy.

Christ is the Christian’s hope. In Christ, there is security, well-being, and life. With Jesus, there is a vision of justice in which all persons receive what they need to live, thrive, and flourish in God’s world. Christ works for our benefit without the personal greed and indifference of so many earthly rulers. The weak and vulnerable have a champion in Jesus Christ. Renewal and restoration are possibilities.

I have taken a liking to a show called “The Repair Shop,” a British television series in which family heirlooms with sentimental value are restored by experts for their owners. What captivates me about the show is how a few people can take old broken-down items (and by all appearances now a piece of junk) and restore them to their once glorious newness.

Yet, there is more to my captivation. I am struck by the sheer pleasure the restorers take in handling the old object, enjoying the process. Just by the looks on their faces, I can tell they consider it a privilege to be restoring a precious object of the past.

I am sure this is precisely how God feels with us. Rather than envisioning the Lord as some reluctant deity who feels put out with having to rescue a bunch of dumb and wayward people, God is One who takes delight in taking this old stump of fallen damaged humanity and restoring people to their original luster and beauty.

Transformation is God’s specialty, and the Lord goes about the process of restoration with great care and delight.

The Peaceable Kingdom by Malcah Zeldis

The impossible possibility of God’s new creation is poetically described in Isaiah as the peaceful co-existence of animals who are inconceivably together without fear or violence. There is a time coming when death will be no more, and so, the necessity in this life of hunter and prey will be forever negated. No more snakes terrorizing women and children. No more big fishes eating little ones. No more human fat cats preying upon and striking poison on the small and vulnerable.

The presence of the godly Ruler means the world will be governed rightly, detoxified of its sinful impurities – a place where the poor, the weak, and the little lambs will indeed be safe and secure forever. There will be peace because of the Prince of Peace. All creation will be full of God, and so, free of all malice.

Isaiah envisions a deep, radical, limitless transformation in which there will be no more desire to injure another; no need to dominate another; and no motive for selfish power over others.

The Lord will bring about a metamorphosis of human hearts and institutions, a renovation of the animal kingdom, and a radical change down to every blade of grass in creation. The Apostle Paul had this grand prophetic vision of God in mind when he wrote to the Church at Rome:

I believe that the present suffering is nothing compared to the coming glory that is going to be revealed to us. The whole creation waits breathless with anticipation for the revelation of God’s sons and daughters. Creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice—it was the choice of the one who subjected it—but in the hope that the creation itself will be set free from slavery to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of God’s children. We know that the whole creation is groaning together and suffering labor pains up until now. And it’s not only the creation. We ourselves who have the Spirit as the first crop of the harvest also groan inside as we wait to be adopted and for our bodies to be set free. We were saved in hope. If we see what we hope for, that isn’t hope. Who hopes for what they already see? But if we hope for what we don’t see, we wait for it with patience. (Romans 8:18-25, CEB)

The implication for us as humanity was voiced by Paul to the Colossian Church:

Each of you is now a new person. You are becoming more and more like your Creator, and you will understand him better. It doesn’t matter if you are a Greek or a Jew, or if you are circumcised or not. You may even be a barbarian or a Scythian, and you may be a slave or a free person. Yet Christ is all that matters, and he lives in all of us.

God loves you and has chosen you as his own special people. So be gentle, kind, humble, meek, and patient. Put up with each other, and forgive anyone who does you wrong, just as Christ has forgiven you. Love is more important than anything else. It is what ties everything completely together.

Each one of you is part of the body of Christ, and you were chosen to live together in peace. So let the peace that comes from Christ control your thoughts. And be grateful. (Colossians 3:10-15, CEV)

The transformation is all-pervasive, thoroughly public, and intimately personal. It is a gift from God; it is the impossible made possible. And it is this precise thing which we acknowledge, celebrate, and long for in the season of Advent. When the angel came to Mary and communicated that Isaiah’s vision was coming to reality through her womb, Mary astonishingly retorted:

 “How will this be, since I am a virgin?”

The angel, with supreme confidence, answered Mary as a matter of fact:

“The Holy Spirit will come on you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So, the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God…. For no word from God will ever fail.”

Mary’s response gives voice to our own desires and longings for the new order of things:

“I am the Lord’s servant. May your word to me be fulfilled.” (Luke 1:34-38, NIV)

This is our confession, too. We are the Lord’s servants.

May God’s word to us about the coming of Christ be fulfilled, just as Isaiah said. The hopes and fears of all the years are met in Jesus on a starry night so many years ago.

Soli Deo Gloria

2 Corinthians 7:2-16 – Genuine Sorrow Changes Us

Make room for us in your hearts. We have wronged no one, we have corrupted no one, we have exploited no one. I do not say this to condemn you; I have said before that you have such a place in our hearts that we would live or die with you. I have spoken to you with great frankness; I take great pride in you. I am greatly encouraged; in all our troubles my joy knows no bounds.

For when we came into Macedonia, we had no rest, but we were harassed at every turn—conflicts on the outside, fears within. But God, who comforts the downcast, comforted us by the coming of Titus, and not only by his coming but also by the comfort you had given him. He told us about your longing for me, your deep sorrow, your ardent concern for me, so that my joy was greater than ever.

Even if I caused you sorrow by my letter, I do not regret it. Though I did regret it—I see that my letter hurt you, but only for a little while— yet now I am happy, not because you were made sorry, but because your sorrow led you to repentance. For you became sorrowful as God intended and so were not harmed in any way by us. Godly sorrow brings repentance that leads to salvation and leaves no regret, but worldly sorrow brings death. See what this godly sorrow has produced in you: what earnestness, what eagerness to clear yourselves, what indignation, what alarm, what longing, what concern, what readiness to see justice done. At every point you have proved yourselves to be innocent in this matter. So even though I wrote to you, it was neither on account of the one who did the wrong nor on account of the injured party, but rather that before God you could see for yourselves how devoted to us you are. By all this we are encouraged.

In addition to our own encouragement, we were especially delighted to see how happy Titus was, because his spirit has been refreshed by all of you. I had boasted to him about you, and you have not embarrassed me. But just as everything we said to you was true, so our boasting about you to Titus has proved to be true as well. And his affection for you is all the greater when he remembers that you were all obedient, receiving him with fear and trembling. I am glad I can have complete confidence in you. (New International Version)

“The only vice that cannot be forgiven is hypocrisy because the repentance of a hypocrite is itself hypocrisy.”

William Hazlitt (1778-1830)

I’m in the soul business. Not in the Detroit Mo-town Aretha Franklin kind of soul business (although that would be very cool) but in the sense of leading human souls to God and building them up in Christ. Key to the Christian life’s soul is the term “repentance.”  To repent means to turn around, to stop going in one direction and start going in another one. It is repentance which makes all the difference in the direction of our souls.

Certainly, no one can really judge the heart of another. Yet, today’s New Testament lesson lets us in on how to truly measure the sincerity of a person’s repentance. 

Worldly sorrow or grief does not lead to repentance, but disconnection and death. People with worldly sorrow beat themselves up but never really change direction. Like Judas Iscariot of old, they just hang themselves instead of admitting guilt to Jesus. 

Godly sorrow, however, leads to repentance, a change of direction. And here is the evidence of the genuine change: 

  • Owning the problem.
  • Eagerness to make things right.
  • Indignation over what has been done or said.
  • Discernment that there is more pain in avoiding the problem than there is confronting it.
  • Desire and energy to do what is best for the person who was wronged.
  • Willingness to accept whatever consequences which might result from the offense.

Crying and weeping might be necessary. Yet the tears can also be a cheap form of avoiding true repentance. 

Whether there are tears, or not, there must be solid action that changes direction and seeks to rectify offenses, as much as it is within our control to do so. 

Deliverance from the power of guilt and shame comes through repentance. There are no shortcuts or easy routes to the soul’s orientation to practical godliness. 

There is nothing romantic about repentance. It is typically messy, usually ugly, and often painful. Yet, there must be suffering before there is glory. Attempting to remove true repentance from personal transformation only eviscerates the Christian life and leaves our souls vacuous and empty.

Instead, we carefully, tediously, and patiently go about the important work of repentance, with all its deep sorrow, regret, vulnerability, challenge, awkwardness, and courage.

Holy God, I confess to you the things which I have said and done, as well as those things I have left unsaid and undone. And, yet your mercy is from everlasting to everlasting. Open my eyes to the ways I have offended others and failed to build them up. Help me to step boldly into repentance and faith in Jesus Christ, through the power of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.