Grace Changes Everything (Isaiah 12:1-6)

In that day [to come] you will say:

“I will praise you, Lord.
    Although you were angry with me,
your anger has turned away
    and you have comforted me.
Surely God is my salvation;
    I will trust and not be afraid.
The Lord, the Lord himself, is my strength and my defense;
    he has become my salvation.”
With joy you will draw water
    from the wells of salvation.

In that day you will say:

“Give praise to the Lord, proclaim his name;
    make known among the nations what he has done,
    and proclaim that his name is exalted.
Sing to the Lord, for he has done glorious things;
    let this be known to all the world.
Shout aloud and sing for joy, people of Zion,
    for great is the Holy One of Israel among you.” (New International Version)

The Bad News

The reason prophecies are made about better times ahead is because the times now are not so good. That was true of Isaiah’s day, and still remains true today.

It’s easy to identify what’s wrong in this world, especially during a political election cycle! It’s not so easy to recognize the ways we keep ourselves as Christians in bad times. A big reason why, and I unabashedly state it, even though I say it much to my chagrin:

Christianity in our day has mostly failed at spiritual transformation because we have not identified and named the real evils we face, thus leaving us largely irrelevant to a world desperately in need of Jesus Christ.

Jesus, speaking to religious folk who should have known better, said:

“You have neglected the more important matters of the law—justice, mercy and faithfulness… You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel.” (Matthew 23:23-24, NIV)

The tragedy of our age, which was the same tragedy of Isaiah’s age, is that there are so many godless followers of God. They fuss about trifles while ignoring more serious matters. Many Christians’ faith is not much more than conforming to cultural Christian norms while mostly ignoring the realities in front of their faces.

We say we need God but then turn to Google for answers and solutions.

We bemoan the lack of righteousness in the nation, then obnoxiously argue with others and create unnecessary relational wedges.

We decry the injustice of our cities and our world, then do nothing to address the problems and change it.

We talk about the need for others to change rather than first looking in the mirror. Yet, even when we do that, we walk away and forget what we look like.

“For it is time for judgment to begin with God’s household; and if it begins with us, what will the outcome be for those who do not obey the gospel of God?” (1 Peter 4:17, NIV)

The Good News

However, judgment is not the last word. Even though the prophecy of Isaiah is thick with it, and I started out with less than uplifting words, there is one word that transcends every word: grace.

The grace of God is remarkable! The Lord made promises to Israel in Isaiah’s day not based upon what they would or would not do; God made promises to the people by God’s own radical and scandalous grace. It wasn’t a matter of playing Let’s Make a Deal, with God saying, “If you get your act together, then I will be good to you.” No, before Israel even had a chance to return to the Lord, God was already choosing to be merciful.

I am absolutely convinced with the firmest conviction possible that the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments are all about God and God’s own unbounded, unfettered, free, crazy, illogical, and wildly wonderful grace.

Because God is Love, the Lord constantly goes out of the way to be gracious so that we can live up to being the sort of people our dogs think we are already.

If we miss the message of God’s grace in the Holy Scriptures, we have missed salvation – because only grace can save us. Without grace, we are lost. Today’s Old Testament lesson is full of praise because it’s a response to the undeserved grace which God freely gives. 

If grace isn’t the answer, we aren’t asking the right question. Grace is love that seeks you out when you have nothing to give in return. Grace is wildly generous. Grace does not use carrot sticks, scorecards, or power politics. Grace never demands – it only gives. 

Grace is unconditional acceptance given to an undeserving person by an unobligated giver. 

That is what God did for Israel… and for us. And when we get a hold of this truth, even a little bit, our hearts become bubblers of praise.

The Bible is an extended drama of redemption; and Isaiah’s prophecy is an adventure of God’s steadfast love toward unlovable people – which is why Isaiah is one of the most quoted books of the Old Testament by Jesus. Jesus came because of grace. 

Jesus came to release us from our obsessive need to be right, our compulsion to be rewarded, and our demands to be respected. 

Because Jesus came to set sinful captives free, life does not have to be a joyless effort of justifying and validating ourselves before others. The grace of God in Christ is a game-changer. And with but a glimpse of grace, we are forever undone by God’s mercy.

Grace leads us to praise God

“Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ. For he chose us… In love he predestined us… to the praise of his glorious grace, which he has freely given us in the One he loves.” (Ephesians 1:3-6, NIV)

Grace causes us to trust God

If God is for us, who can be against us? (Romans 8:31, NIV)

Grace results in our comfort and satisfaction in God

Never again will they hunger;
    never again will they thirst.
The sun will not beat down on them,
    nor any scorching heat.
For the Lamb at the center of the throne
    will be their shepherd;
he will lead them to springs of living water.
    And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes. (Revelation 7:16-17, NIV)

Grace creates in us thanksgiving to God

“We know that the one who raised the Lord Jesus from the dead will also raise us with Jesus and present us with you to himself. All this is for your benefit, so that the grace that is reaching more and more people may cause thanksgiving to overflow to the glory of God.” (2 Corinthians 4:14-15, NIV)

The Lord has seen you at your worst, and still loves you. And if that isn’t something that gets you expressing gratitude to God, then you have failed to see God in your dog. We make known among the nations what God has done because God has really done something in our lives worth babbling our thanksgiving over to everyone. And grace helps us to do it.

Grace causes us to sing together to God

When grace takes hold of a congregation, there is no mumbling of songs – there are loud shouts and singing for joy because God is good! We need times of both silence and contemplative worship and times of becoming unhinged with some noisy worship to the God who has saved us and given us something to sing about. 

Oh, sing to the Lord a new song!
For He has done marvelous things;
His right hand and His holy arm have gained Him the victory. (Psalm 98:1, NKJV)

Conclusion

The world mostly ignores God. Some Christians take God’s grace for granted. The greatest sin of all is the sheer absence of grace – because where there is no grace, there is no God. God is the expert in transforming apathetic people into caring, compassionate, and concerned citizens of the kingdom who raise their voices and declare the works of the Lord.

Isaiah’s entire prophecy is about returning to the Lord. And the upcoming season of Advent is all about God’s relentless pursuit of wayward people – the anticipation of grace coming in the form of an infant – and the bringing of grace to a people living in darkness.

Let us, then, return to the Lord… be captivated by grace… renew our love for Jesus… lose ourselves in praise and adoration of the One who gave everything for us.

Let us worship Christ the King and proclaim the name of Jesus as exalted over everything and everyone.

Gracious God, we come with nothing but ourselves and our baggage of sin. Forgive, cleanse, renew, revive, refresh, and reform us according to the ways of Jesus Christ. Thank you for your undeserved grace. We give you praise for the lengths you went to secure our forgiveness. With a joy too deep for words, we humbly offer to you our lives so that the name of Jesus will be exalted through us, to your glory and honor. Amen.

Get Me Out of This Scary Dungeon Cave! (Psalm 142)

I pray to you, Lord.
    I beg for mercy.
I tell you all my worries
    and my troubles,
and whenever I feel low,
    you are there to guide me.

A trap has been hidden
    along my pathway.
Even if you look,
    you won’t see anyone
who cares enough
    to walk beside me.
There is no place to hide,
    and no one who really cares.

I pray to you, Lord!
    You are my place of safety,
and you are my choice
    in the land of the living.
Please answer my prayer.
    I am completely helpless.

Help! They are chasing me,
    and they are too strong.
Rescue me from this prison,
    so I can praise your name.
And when your people notice
your wonderful kindness to me,
    they will rush to my side. (Contemporary English Version)

The modern holiday of Halloween is kitschy with a funny sort of scary. But there’s nothing funny about being truly frightened and feeling helpless. Its anything but a holiday.

The psalmist, David, was in both a literal and a metaphorical cave. Before he ever became king of Israel and Judah, David was on the run from King Saul. He hid in a cave. He had more suspense and was on the edge of his seat much more than any horror slasher film could portray.

David was hiding and just trying to stay alive. There was nothing in his life which deserved such maltreatment. It was sheer jealousy on Saul’s end of things that caused him to give his soul over to oppressive pride. And David was the brunt of that oppression.

As biblical readers, we know the end of the story. Saul is eventually killed in battle and David is exalted as the new king. Yet, here, in today’s psalm, we have the genuine cry of a desperate man who longed for the justice of God – not knowing what the end of it all would be.

One of the reasons David was a person after God’s own heart is that he was humble and remained connected to God without succumbing to the bitterness of his situation. I strongly suggest that David was able to keep his life free from pride because he regularly liberated his spirit through real and raw expressions of his emotions and experiences to God.

Spiritual confidence cannot be ginned-up through pretending that all is well, and everything is okay. Rather, spiritual courage is forged in the most awful of circumstances through loud cries of emotional pain to the God who truly hears it all.

Anyone who tells you different is flimsily trying to maintain their puny sense of delusional power. God sees you in the dark place and he hears your cry for mercy. He knows your dark cave better than you know it yourself.

One of the reasons I love the psalms so dearly is that they know the human condition. There is no pretense with the psalmist, David. He opens his mind and heart. He lets the genuine feelings of his life pour out in an offering to the God who pays attention to the humble and contrite.

The proud and arrogant will forever be flummoxed by the psalms, not understanding why they are even in the canon of Holy Scripture.

Yet, here they are, for all to examine and experience. Whereas the piously insincere are continually putting up a false front of godliness and keeping up appearances of superior spirituality, here we have authentic religion smack in front of our faces.

For me, the psalms liberate us from the shackles of trying to be someone I am not and enable us to connect with a God who encourages us in our strange wonderings, our emotional pain, and our sometimes horrific situations.

The Lord is perfectly at home with hearing loud cries, agonizing shouts, and desperate prayers directed to heaven.

Those who oppress others, I believe, are easy to spot because they:

  • Ask rhetorical questions to make a point.
  • Assume their thoughts and ways are always best.
  • Accuse without evidence based on their faulty assumptions.
  • Seek to harm and destroy.
  • Enjoy chaos and thrive on taking advantage of others’ misfortune.
  • Refuse to listen and learn from others.
  • Suppress all competing voices contrary to their own.

Autocrats are too smug and too far into their delusions of power, authority, and self-righteousness to be able to hear any voice other than their own.

A self-absorbed despot in power feels like being in a dingy dank prison cave with no ability to leverage a release.

A self-abnegated deliverer in authority feels like being in a wide open field with freedom to help others in bondage.

God hears when others don’t. The Lord advocates on behalf of those caught in the crosshairs of tyrannical injustice and maltreatment. Divine benevolence is always on the lookout for those being oppressed.

The Almighty uses power to listen and respond when distressed persons are scared silly with maltreatment. Voices raised to heaven shall never go unheard.

Since God listens to those in need of mercy, this is precisely the disposition we are to adopt, as well.

The proud, convinced of their superiority, either cannot or will not see those languishing underneath unjust power structures. There is no space within arrogant hearts to accommodate the cries for justice from people beneath them.

Therefore, recourse for the oppressed comes from God – because God acts with equity, integrity, and justice.

It is not the oppressed who need our pity; it is the ungodly, because they don’t know anything about pity, or empathy, or mercy. Oppressors have no stomach for any of that. So, they keep people locked in systems of oppression. They maintain relational distance and turn a blind eye to the genuine frightened screams of those under their boot.

The weak, the distressed, and the spiritually tired in this corrupt world, however, have the chance for appeal. They can call out to the God who knows them and their situations.

Although cries for deliverance may not happen immediately, we can be assured that divine help is forthcoming. And that is scary good stuff.

Lord Jesus Christ, by your patience in suffering you made my earthly pain sacred and gave me the example of humility. Be near to me in my time of weakness and pain; sustain me by your grace so that my strength and courage may not fail. Heal me according to your will. Loving Jesus, as you cried out on the cross, I cry out to you in my desperation. Do not forsake me. Grant me relief and preserve me in your perfect peace. Amen.

How to Cope with Trials of Faith (James 1:2-11)

Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything. If any of you lacks wisdom, you should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to you. 

But when you ask, you must believe and not doubt, because the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind. That person should not expect to receive anything from the Lord. Such a person is double-minded and unstable in all they do.

Believers in humble circumstances ought to take pride in their high position. But the rich should take pride in their humiliation—since they will pass away like a wild flower. For the sun rises with scorching heat and withers the plant; its blossom falls, and its beauty is destroyed. In the same way, the rich will fade away even while they go about their business. (New International Version)

Where do you turn when unwanted circumstances leave you wondering how to cope?

The Apostle James, no stranger to adversity and stressful situations, likened our position in hard situations as faith being on the witness stand, put to the test. Faith is being examined and cross-examined. And it must stand the test. 

Our attitude toward such trials, in all their varied forms, determines whether we will become upset, hard-hearted, and calloused, or, come through having our faith confirmed with newfound peace and joy.

Christians are to view their adverse situations as an opportunity for their faith in Christ to develop and grow.

Rejoice in the midst of trials

Telling someone to consider their tough situation as pure joy is a really hard pill to swallow. 

James, however, was looking to fortify the believers’ faith. Whenever we get a cut or a laceration, the first thing needed is to apply peroxide to the wound so there will be no infection from the injury. It might seem insensitive because peroxide applied to an open wound, frankly, hurts like hell. Yet it must happen. It’s a necessary part of healing. 

The Apostle cared enough about the people to tell them what they needed to hear, up front. Without a positive, godly, and wise perspective on their difficulties, their faith would fail. Infection would set in and destroy the fledgling church.

Suffering is a significant part of the Christian life. God never promised that life would be or should be all cupcakes and unicorns. 

In fact, Christ promised just the opposite – that everyone who wants to live for Jesus in this present broken world will have a hard time of it. It’s not a matter if you will face the testing of your faith, but of whenever you face trials.

The good news is that adversity can become our teacher. We can learn patient endurance, which is necessary to the development of our faith. Spiritual growth only matures through the testing of faith through adversity.

These troubles come to prove that your faith is pure. This purity of faith is worth more than gold, which can be proved to be pure by fire but will ruin. But the purity of your faith will bring you praise and glory and honor when Jesus Christ is shown to you.

1 Peter 1:7, NCV

Faith is not a neutral or static thing. Faith is active and dynamic. It’s always either developing or degenerating.  Without spiritual peroxide, faith degenerates and becomes rancid. Eventually, gangrene sets in, and an amputation will happen. To avoid this, we need to learn how to experience joy in the middle of hard things.

Faith is challenging, and often hard. Yet, even within the pain, faith is incredibly invigorating and joyful.

Do not avoid trials

We need perseverance. Only through endurance is spiritual maturity realized. Let your hard situation do its necessary work. Immature people avoid hard things and instead put their energy into keeping up appearances.

Conversely, the mature person perseveres through the test and trial of faith. They understand that there must be pressure for spiritual maturity to occur.

God is looking to do something beautiful in our lives. So, if we constantly run away and do not deal with our hard situations, there will never be a pearl. It takes about ten years for a pearl to form in an oyster in the ocean.  Observing an oyster every day, you never notice any movement is happening. But it’s there.

In the Christian life, the consistent daily choices over a long period of time (perseverance) form the eventual beauty.

Pray for wisdom in the trials

Ask God for wisdom to see the adverse circumstance from a different angle – of its positive good, and for what God is accomplishing in and through it. The truth is, God is developing within people a strong vibrant faith, if we allow it.

Within a hardship, it does little good to ask, “Why is this happening to me?” It is much better to ask, “Why is this trial here for me? What can I learn from it?”

With no meaningful prayers, there is no meaningful wisdom for our circumstances.

Believe God is good no matter the trial

God is not mean, but generous. The Lord gives with no questions asked, and without giving us a hard time about our situation. Yet, there is a condition….

We must believe – that God is good, answers prayer, and gives wisdom. We may doubt a lot of things. Yet we are always to be secure in the knowledge that God has our best interests at heart. This is why there can be joy and perseverance, even when everything around us is going to hell.

Christians in humble circumstances actually have a high position because their poverty enables them to be open to God; and the pressures of poverty lead them to rely on God’s enablement and provision.

Whenever you find yourself with few material possessions; work hard but struggle to keep food on the table; and find it difficult to pay the bills – then, you are stripped of the illusion of independence and are left vulnerable before God. Trust isn’t optional, but absolutely necessary for survival.

Will we pour our lives into things, or into people?

Will we look for ingenuity and technical solutions in order to make our budgets budge, or will we come to God?

Will we define success as worldly wealth, or will we define success as acting justly, loving mercy, and walking humbly with our God?

Do not trust in wealth during a trial

In the midst of hard times, those who love the Lord Jesus are realize their true position and draw strength from it. Yet, for those who do not trust God alone but trust in their wealth and resources, things will not end well.

“Watch out! Guard yourself against all kinds of greed. After all, one’s life isn’t determined by one’s possessions, even when someone is very wealthy.” Then he told them a parable: “A certain rich man’s land produced a bountiful crop. He said to himself, What will I do? I have no place to store my harvest! Then he thought, Here’s what I’ll do. I’ll tear down my barns and build bigger ones. That’s where I’ll store all my grain and goods. I’ll say to myself, You have stored up plenty of goods, enough for several years. Take it easy! Eat, drink, and enjoy yourself. But God said to him, ‘Fool, tonight you will die. Now who will get the things you have prepared for yourself?’ This is the way it will be for those who hoard things for themselves and aren’t rich toward God.” (Luke 12:15-21, CEB)          

Such persons fade away even while they go about their business. Those who trust in things are the real underprivileged people. They may grow up and look beautiful. And yet, the next day, they’re gone – annihilated by a hot wind. 

Like a cornfield in a massive hailstorm, or a flower in a severely hot sirocco wind, the rich cannot stand in the judgment, that is, if they are trusting in their wealth to provide power, control, attention, and status.

The upwardly mobile path of worldly success and financial security, never stopping to lay up treasure in heaven, will have a rude awakening with a major career change in hell.

Conclusion

Where are you on the spectrum of faith? 

Do you need to turn from trust in stuff, and trust in Christ? 

Confess to God a love of things over love of Christ.

Declare to God that you want to change.

Believe in forgiveness through the cross of Christ.

Tell a trusted person about your decision.

Grant, O God, that we may never lose our way through stubborn self-will, and never abandon the struggle but endure to the end. Help us never to choose the cheap way of avoiding or circumventing our trials but embrace the Via Dolorosa. May we never forget that sweat is the price of all things, and that without the cross, there cannot be the crown. Amen.

Exiled (Jeremiah 52:12-30)

The Babylonian Exile by Jewish-German painter Eduard Bendemann (1811-1889)

In the nineteenth year of Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon on the seventh day of the fifth month, Nebuzaradan, the king of Babylon’s chief deputy, arrived in Jerusalem. He burned the Temple of God to the ground, went on to the royal palace, and then finished off the city. He burned the whole place down. He put the Babylonian troops he had with him to work knocking down the city walls. Finally, he rounded up everyone left in the city, including those who had earlier deserted to the king of Babylon, and took them off into exile. He left a few poor dirt farmers behind to tend the vineyards and what was left of the fields.

The Babylonians broke up the bronze pillars, the bronze washstands, and the huge bronze basin (the Sea) that were in the Temple of God and hauled the bronze off to Babylon. They also took the various bronze-crafted liturgical accessories, as well as the gold and silver censers and sprinkling bowls, used in the services of Temple worship. The king’s deputy didn’t miss a thing. He took every scrap of precious metal he could find.

The amount of bronze they got from the two pillars, the Sea, the twelve bronze bulls that supported the Sea, and the ten washstands that Solomon had made for the Temple of God was enormous. They couldn’t weigh it all! Each pillar stood twenty-seven feet high with a circumference of eighteen feet. The pillars were hollow, the bronze a little less than an inch thick. Each pillar was topped with an ornate capital of bronze pomegranates and filigree, which added another seven and a half feet to its height. There were ninety-six pomegranates evenly spaced—in all, a hundred pomegranates worked into the filigree.

The king’s deputy took a number of special prisoners: Seraiah the chief priest, Zephaniah the associate priest, three wardens, the chief remaining army officer, seven of the king’s counselors who happened to be in the city, the chief recruiting officer for the army, and sixty men of standing from among the people who were still there. Nebuzaradan the king’s deputy marched them all off to the king of Babylon at Riblah. And there at Riblah, in the land of Hamath, the king of Babylon killed the lot of them in cold blood.

Judah went into exile, orphaned from her land.

3,023 men of Judah were taken into exile by Nebuchadnezzar in the seventh year of his reign.

832 from Jerusalem were taken in the eighteenth year of his reign.

745 men from Judah were taken off by Nebuzaradan, the king’s chief deputy, in Nebuchadnezzar’s twenty-third year.

The total number of exiles was 4,600. (The Message)

The Babylonian Exile by Fahri Aldin, 2017

Eventually, God’s words and decrees happen. It may take minutes. It might take centuries. But it will happen.

God promised destruction. It happened. The temple, the city walls, and the houses of Jerusalem were destroyed.

God decreed deportation of the people. It happened. Thousands of Jews were uprooted and moved to Babylon.

God foretold depression. It happened. The social and economic system of Judah collapsed.

God said there would be an occupation of Gentiles. It happened. The occupying force seized and confiscated the holy temple articles. They violated that which was sacred to Judah.

God repeatedly told the people that there would be a reckoning for the years of social injustice and religious infidelity. It happened. There was not just a deportation of persons; there were waves of removal.

The long prophecy of Jeremiah began with a proclamation of exile. It moved toward that exile. And then, in the end, the exile became reality.

Surely, it must have seemed to the citizens of Jerusalem that the end of the world was at hand. Their very identity as God’s people, as they had understood it for centuries, was now obliterated. Who are they now?

The Jewish exile changed forever their understanding of themselves and of God because they needed to reimagine what being the people of God really means without a place and without a temple.

God is both subject and object of all Holy Scripture, including the book of Jeremiah. Perhaps neglected in all the talk of exile is that the Lord was also cast-off, put away, and exiled. And rather than this being bad news, it becomes the good news that divine presence was right alongside the exiles.

In our darkest times, in the worst of circumstances, when all seems hopeless – there is a God who shows such solidarity with us that he is crucified and put to death so that we might live.

The Lord does not stand afar off from us but is beside us, even within us.

The sheer violation and agony of Good Friday and the depressive silence of Holy Saturday are the means of demonstrating the power of resurrection and new life.

We may be deported, depressed, and destroyed – exiled to a place we do not know and do not want to be. Yet, that is not the end of the story.

Exile is temporary. Mercy is forever. There cannot be a resurrection without a death. There must be suffering before there is glory.

Love wins. Every time.

God is Love. Thus, there is always hope….