God behind and before us

For you shall not go out in haste,
and you shall not go in flight,
for the LORD will go before you,
and the God of Israel will be your rear guard.

Isaiah 52:12

Right before the “suffering servant” passages we have this promise for Israel in the midst of subjugation by the foreign world power of that time, Assyria. All the promises of God we’re told are yes and amen in and through Christ. So, there’s something we can take from this for ourselves this day and time.

God is behind and before us to guide and protect us. We need to live appreciating that. It might well be true for us and is as long as we have faith. But we may not much if at all have any sense or experience of it. This truth should help us not to be afraid or panic as the passage above tells us. Because we have a certain inward rest even in the midst of difficulty, trial, whatnot, just all the inevitable twists and turns that life brings.

God will take care of it. God has our backs and knows all that lies ahead. There’s a certain mysticism which faith in God elicits. We can’t explain or understand it fully, except we know there’s one that fully understands, and though much seems out of control, and is definitely beyond our control, we also know that God is at work in all things for good, somehow in control in the midst of it all. So that our full confidence is only in God. In and through Jesus.

Fifth Sunday of Easter: Acts 11:1-18; Psalm 148; Revelation 21:1-6; John 13:31-35

Now the apostles and the brothers and sisters who were in Judea heard that the gentiles had also accepted the word of God. So when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcised believers criticized him, saying, “Why did you go to uncircumcised men and eat with them?” Then Peter began to explain it to them, step by step, saying, “I was in the city of Joppa praying, and in a trance I saw a vision. There was something like a large sheet coming down from heaven, being lowered by its four corners, and it came close to me. As I looked at it closely I saw four-footed animals, beasts of prey, reptiles, and birds of the air. I also heard a voice saying to me, ‘Get up, Peter; kill and eat.’ But I replied, ‘By no means, Lord, for nothing profane or unclean has ever entered my mouth.’ But a second time the voice answered from heaven, ‘What God has made clean, you must not call profane.’ This happened three times; then everything was pulled up again to heaven. At that very moment three men, sent to me from Caesarea, arrived at the house where we were. The Spirit told me to go with them and not to make a distinction between them and us. These six brothers also accompanied me, and we entered the man’s house. He told us how he had seen the angel standing in his house and saying, ‘Send to Joppa and bring Simon, who is called Peter; he will give you a message by which you and your entire household will be saved.’ And as I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell upon them just as it had upon us at the beginning. And I remembered the word of the Lord, how he had said, ‘John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’ If then God gave them the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?” When they heard this, they were silenced. And they praised God, saying, “Then God has given even to the gentiles the repentance that leads to life.”

Acts 11:1-18

Praise the LORD!
Praise the LORD from the heavens;
praise him in the heights!
Praise him, all his angels;
praise him, all his host!

Praise him, sun and moon;
praise him, all you shining stars!
Praise him, you highest heavens
and you waters above the heavens!

Let them praise the name of the LORD,
for he commanded and they were created.
He established them forever and ever;
he fixed their bounds, which cannot be passed.

Praise the LORD from the earth,
you sea monsters and all deeps,
fire and hail, snow and frost,
stormy wind fulfilling his command!

Mountains and all hills,
fruit trees and all cedars!
Wild animals and all cattle,
creeping things and flying birds!

Kings of the earth and all peoples,
princes and all rulers of the earth!
Young men and women alike,
old and young together!

Let them praise the name of the LORD,
for his name alone is exalted;
his glory is above earth and heaven.
He has raised up a horn for his people,
praise for all his faithful,
for the people of Israel who are close to him.
Praise the LORD!

Psalm 148

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying,

“See, the home of God is among mortals.
He will dwell with them;
they will be his peoples,
and God himself will be with them and be their God;
he will wipe every tear from their eyes.
Death will be no more;
mourning and crying and pain will be no more,
for the first things have passed away.”

And the one who was seated on the throne said, “See, I am making all things new.” Also he said, “Write this, for these words are trustworthy and true.” Then he said to me, “It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End. To the thirsty I will give water as a gift from the spring of the water of life.

Revelation 21:1-6

When he had gone out, Jesus said, “Now the Son of Man has been glorified, and God has been glorified in him. If God has been glorified in him, God will also glorify him in himself and will glorify him at once. Little children, I am with you only a little longer. You will look for me, and as I said to the Jews so now I say to you, ‘Where I am going, you cannot come.’ I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

John 13:31-35

Revised Common Lectionary

against living in a (the holy) bubble

I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral persons, not at all meaning the sexually immoral of this world, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters, since you would then need to go out of the world. But now I am writing to you not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother or sister who is sexually immoral or greedy or an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or swindler. Do not even eat with such a one. For what have I to do with judging those outside? Are you not judges of those who are inside? God will judge those outside. “Drive out the wicked person from among you.”

1 Corinthians 5:9-13

Do not be mismatched with unbelievers. For what do righteousness and lawlessness have in common? Or what partnership is there between light and darkness? What agreement does Christ have with Beliar? Or what does a believer share with an unbeliever? What agreement has the temple of God with idols? For we are the temple of the living God, as God said,

“I will live in them and walk among them,
and I will be their God,
and they shall be my people.
Therefore come out from them,
and be separate from them, says the Lord,
and touch nothing unclean;
then I will welcome you,
and I will be your father,
and you shall be my sons and daughters,
says the Lord Almighty.”

Since we have these promises, beloved, let us cleanse ourselves from every defilement of flesh and of spirit, making holiness perfect in the fear of God.

2 Corinthians 6:14-7:1

Although I rarely watch films, I remember favorites of the relatively few that I’ve watched, and one of them is The Truman Show. In that a man grows up within a bubble, but at a certain point the imaginary world built around him seems unreal to him and he wants to escape. Something to that effect.

I along with many others have been impacted by a Christian tradition and culture which is isolationist at its core. Except to go out and try to get people saved so that they can enter into the same isolation. This happened in just about any and every way conceivable. Their own education, books, music, entertainment, you name it. Everything was essentially covered.

And when you consider the history of especially the past one hundred fifty years or so along with the above Scripture passages, this is understandable, even if all of it was relatively misguided, which I believe was indeed the case. When you consider Jesus’s lifestyle as given to us in the gospel accounts, one who ate and drank and therefore seemed to be at home with the tax-collectors and sinners to the chagrin of the religious leaders, and along with other things against him, Jesus ended up condemned because of that, then one can begin to wonder.

Yes, Paul quotes the prophets telling us essentially not to touch the unclean thing. Interestingly Jesus’s touch made the unclean thing clean, and we’re told to follow Jesus. So what Paul was getting at I take as essentially different. As followers of Jesus we’re to be distinctive from the world in the way we live, what our passions and priorities are. We are in covenant together as the church to hold each other up in prayer and be accountable, for others to help us in our weakness to continue on in spite of ourselves and our inevitable faults along the way, failures included.

It is nothing less than a catastrophe, the insistence to live isolationist within a bubble when we’re the salt of the earth and the light of the world (Matthew 5:13-16). Yes, we do become unclean when we fail to follow the way of Jesus which is the way of the cross, the way of love for all. We’re held accountable to follow that way, and we try in love to help others to find their way into that way, the way of Jesus, the way who is Jesus. In and through him.

learn from (and don’t ignore) history

I do not want you to be ignorant, brothers and sisters, that our ancestors were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea, and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, and all ate the same spiritual food, and all drank the same spiritual drink. For they drank from the spiritual rock that followed them, and the rock was Christ. Nevertheless, God was not pleased with most of them, and they were struck down in the wilderness.

Now these things occurred as examples for us, so that we might not desire evil as they did. Do not become idolaters as some of them did, as it is written, “The people sat down to eat and drink, and they rose up to play.” We must not engage in sexual immorality, as some of them did, and twenty-three thousand fell in a single day. We must not put Christ to the test, as some of them did, and were destroyed by serpents. And do not complain, as some of them did, and were destroyed by the destroyer. These things happened to them to serve as an example, and they were written down to instruct us, on whom the ends of the ages have come. So if you think you are standing, watch out that you do not fall. No testing has overtaken you that is not common to everyone. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tested beyond your strength, but with the testing he will also provide the way out so that you may be able to endure it.

Therefore, my beloved, flee from the worship of idols. I speak as to sensible people; judge for yourselves what I say.

1 Corinthians 10:1-15

I’m afraid that all too often our theology or teaching we’ve taken in trumps what Scripture actually says. In the same way I’m afraid that any ideology of the world can make reality take a back seat or get out of the car altogether. But reality doesn’t work that way. Unless we take seriously what Scripture says along with the voices that are raising concerns now, and unless we are willing to look at the past square in the eye, and seek to learn from it, and adjust ourselves accordingly, unless we’re willing to do all of that, then we’ll have to suffer the consequences, and others along with us.

All of Scripture somehow has meaning for us now, although I acknowledge that places in Leviticus seem without application to me. But you have to factor all the details of that book in as well, and see that as part of the whole, which might help us understand the present through considering the past along with the projected future.

Something similar is true for world and national history as well. Why we can’t look at the good and the bad, the beautiful and the ugly which is inevitable in any such history, and why that’s considered divisive or whatever else negative is a sign that we’re caught up in some ideology. To be devoted to an ideology as if it’s right and true, one example the myth surrounding any nation’s greatness and goodness, is to at least be on the precipice, if not already fallen into idolatry itself. We must be willing to hear the voices that speak out of pain. Of course, they’re not going to be infallible, but neither should we dismiss them as irrelevant with no truth and nothing to say that we can’t learn from. We must listen and listen and listen. Only then might we have something to say which might help, and maybe not. But we need to seek to learn. Only then will others come to respect what we might have to contribute for good.

And we have to accept what Paul tells us above. We need the fear of God in our hearts, but with the realization that such fear is meant to help us into the knowledge and experience of the fathomless and pervasive love of God. In and through Jesus.

the little things (which can either make or break, hinder or help)

Go to the ant, you lazybones;
consider its ways and be wise.
Without having any chief
or officer or ruler,
it prepares its food in summer
and gathers its sustenance in harvest.
How long will you lie there, O lazybones?
When will you rise from your sleep?
A little sleep, a little slumber,
a little folding of the hands to rest,
and poverty will come upon you like a robber,
and want, like an armed warrior.

Proverbs 6:6-11

We can do only one thing at a time, and there’s always plenty to do. Of course, we can’t do everything, and we don’t do well berating ourselves because of that. We need wisdom from God to know what to do and to know what can be left undone. It’s better to do a few things well, than try to do everything.

There are things we really shouldn’t do. I’m not thinking of moral issues, though they’re certainly included, but rather what we know is not helpful for us in the long run but is hard to resist when we really should. Okay, I’ll say it. For me it’s snacking on a little something just before I go to bed. I feel better, do better when I have at least (or around) a twelve-hour gap between my last meal of the day, and first meal of a new day. And nothing to eat close to bedtime.

There’s the obvious from the above passage. We keep at it day after day, week after week, month after month, year after year. Just humbly plodding along. Doing everything we’re supposed to do. That adds up and accumulates over time exponentially, at least in shaping our character along with the provision God gives us through that.

The little by little of good is so important. No less important is the harm we can cause by a little of what’s wrong. Yes, we will fail along the way, and there’s always the necessary confession of sin, of letting others know we’re sorry. 

It really doesn’t have to be much, and sometimes really is not, but a little bit, and little by little of that can and will go a long way if we keep at it.

 

resting

A Song of Ascents. Of David.

LORD, my heart is not lifted up;
my eyes are not raised too high;
I do not occupy myself with things
too great and too marvelous for me.
But I have calmed and quieted my soul,
like a weaned child with its mother;
my soul is like the weaned child that is with me.

O Israel, hope in the LORD
from this time on and forevermore.

Psalm 131

There are times when one would like to quit, not life altogether, but take a break from the responsibilities that seem to be crashing in and feel at times crushing. And discouragement is usually close by.

That’s when we need to remind ourselves whose child we are and come to God or more like simply rest in God. Just rest. That is where I find myself today. Just to be present and to be still.

taking Scripture seriously

That very night the brothers and sisters sent Paul and Silas off to Beroea, and when they arrived they went to the Jewish synagogue. These Jews were more receptive than those in Thessalonica, for they welcomed the message very eagerly and examined the scriptures every day to see whether these things were so. Many of them therefore believed, including not a few Greek women and men of high standing. But when the Jews of Thessalonica learned that the word of God had been proclaimed by Paul in Beroea as well, they came there, too, to stir up and incite the crowds. 

Acts 17:10-13

There is a tradition within Christianity among us that among other things is supposed to be Bible-centered. And really when you think about it, that idea in some form has especially been prominent since the Protestant Reformation when Martin Luther reacted to the legalism he perceived in his experience in the Roman Catholic Church and understandably read back that experience into Romans where Paul writes that the just shall live by faith. Today we have what is no less than a culture war in which this view of the role of the Bible is supposedly central.

What Scripture is supposed to do, what it’s about is the light of the good news of God in and through Jesus. Details have to be seen in context, an important part of that in the covenants God made with humankind, what Christians call the old covenant and the new covenant. And the main point is the one which can’t be lost. It’s about God’s promise to creation of a new creation in which all the brokenness of creation is repaired along with the reconciliation of all things to God through Christ. Really, when you start to think about it, quite staggering.

Probably to a significant extent because of an engrained modernist enlightenment way of approaching the biblical text, details that may be relevant or not are parsed out and made to be more or less essentials, or at least litmus tests on whether or not one accepts Scripture as something more than just a human book, “the authority of Scripture.” I won’t name any of those issues here. They’re pretty obvious. But I will say that not only is the reading and interpretation sometimes stretched and at least questionable, but I wonder if the main point is being missed or at least pushed to the side.

No one took Scripture more seriously than the Jews in Thessalonica who opposed Paul and Paul’s message of the gospel. At least that is what they all thought, what Paul himself once thought along with them. They were dead set in defending to the letter and even if necessary to the death their interpretation of Scripture. And it turns out that they were after all was said and done, wrong.

The Jews in Beroea got it right because they listened to the gospel presentation from Paul, then sought to discern together from Scripture whether or not it was true. As a result, many of them came to faith. They weren’t hung up on what turned out to be side issues like circumcision in which Paul would at least ultimately contradict what Scripture, the Torah actually said. They were attentive to what turned out to be the main point, the gospel, the good news of God in Jesus.

I would argue that this is what we must be about today. If we work on that, then details will be more apt to fall into their proper place in our interpretation and understanding. And we must try to judge our understanding of side issues in that light. When we do, we’ll find that Christ is central, God’s work in Christ. This will lead us to God, and to God’s good will. And it will help us to discern together where that good news is taking root and bearing fruit.

That in essence is what Scripture is all about. If we’re really to take Scripture seriously, that is the point we will be concerned about. And all else will be seen in that light. Yes, with the work of interpretation of the texts with all the relevant disciplines in play like biblical background studies in culture, etc.

We must take the Bible completely seriously for what it is. Scripture inspired by God to give us the word of truth, yes the saving good news of God in and through Jesus.

what are we here for?

“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”

Matthew 5:17-20

After the “beatitudes” and the salt and light portion, in what’s called “the Sermon on the Mount,” Jesus says the above. What he is saying about fulfillment of the Law and Prophets and the necessity of the righteousness of his hearers exceeding that of the scribes and Pharisees, those considered the foremost religious leaders of that time certainly involves piety along a host of issues such as alms giving, prayer, marital relations just to name a few. But it surely also involves an awareness of how the Law and the Prophets along with the rest of Scripture needs application then and in our present day within society itself. If what we’re about only has to do with our personal piety and the personal piety of those gathered with us, along with trying to bring others into that same circle, all with the goal of entering the kingdom of heaven, then we’re definitely not going far enough, and could well be missing the point. What after all is our piety for? Just for our own good and the good of those joined with us? Or for the good of all, even of the world, with a sensitivity to what is right and just and good.

Churches that major on individual application of Scripture, thinking that’s the way to help not only individuals, but society at large, really fail to see the entire picture or see it correctly, what is evident in the Prophets and elsewhere. We as God’s people are after all the salt of the earth, the light of the world, what Jesus said just preceding the above quoted Scripture. Salt and light is meant to make a difference in the world at large, not only in individuals in the world. Or at least so I think. If concern for the world and systems in it is added on as something going beyond what is required, as an extra, that’s not enough. Such actually should be a part of the whole.

Yes, only in Jesus is this worked out and completed toward the perfection and shalom that God wants. But that light that we have in Jesus should expose the darkness of the world, and at least advocate for something better within the systems in the world. As we await the return of the one who will clean up the mess once for all and forever. In and through Jesus.

Fourth Sunday of Easter: Acts 9:36-43; Psalm 23; Revelation 7:9-17; John 10:22-30

Now in Joppa there was a disciple whose name was Tabitha, which in Greek is Dorcas. She was devoted to good works and acts of charity. At that time she became ill and died. When they had washed her, they laid her in a room upstairs. Since Lydda was near Joppa, the disciples, who heard that Peter was there, sent two men to him with the request, “Please come to us without delay.” So Peter got up and went with them, and when he arrived, they took him to the room upstairs. All the widows stood beside him, weeping and showing tunics and other clothing that Dorcas had made while she was with them. Peter put all of them outside, and then he knelt down and prayed. He turned to the body and said, “Tabitha, get up.” Then she opened her eyes, and seeing Peter, she sat up. He gave her his hand and helped her up. Then calling the saints and widows, he showed her to be alive. This became known throughout Joppa, and many believed in the Lord. Meanwhile, he stayed in Joppa for some time with a certain Simon, a tanner.

Acts 9:36-43

A Psalm of David.

The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want.
He makes me lie down in green pastures;
he leads me beside still waters;
he restores my soul.
He leads me in right paths
for his name’s sake.

Even though I walk through the darkest valley,
I fear no evil,
for you are with me;
your rod and your staff,
they comfort me.

You prepare a table before me
in the presence of my enemies;
you anoint my head with oil;
my cup overflows.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me
all the days of my life,
and I shall dwell in the house of the LORD
my whole life long.

Psalm 23

After this I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands. They cried out in a loud voice, saying,

“Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne and to the Lamb!”

And all the angels stood around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures, and they fell on their faces before the throne and worshiped God, singing,

“Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom
and thanksgiving and honor
and power and might
be to our God forever and ever! Amen.”

Then one of the elders addressed me, saying, “Who are these, robed in white, and where have they come from?” I said to him, “Sir, you are the one who knows.” Then he said to me, “These are they who have come out of the great ordeal; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.

For this reason they are before the throne of God
and worship him day and night within his temple,
and the one who is seated on the throne will shelter them.
They will hunger no more and thirst no more;
the sun will not strike them,
nor any scorching heat,
for the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd,
and he will guide them to springs of the water of life,
and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”

Revelation 7:9-17

At that time the Festival of the Dedication took place in Jerusalem. It was winter, and Jesus was walking in the temple, in the portico of Solomon. So the Jews gathered around him and said to him, “How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.” Jesus answered, “I have told you, and you do not believe. The works that I do in my Father’s name testify to me, but you do not believe because you do not belong to my sheep. My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand. My Father, in regard to what he has given me, is greater than all, and no one can snatch them out of the Father’s hand. The Father and I are one.”

John 10:22-30

Revised Common Lectionary

(All Scripture citations as in the recent past, here and from now on are from the NRSVUE unless otherwise indicated.)

a passive faith is not enough

Was not our ancestor Abraham justified by works when he offered his son Isaac on the altar? You see that faith was active along with his works, and by works faith was brought to completion. Thus the scripture was fulfilled that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness,” and he was called the friend of God. You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone.

James 2:21-24; NRSVUE

I would like to emphasize to the utmost degree that a passive faith is not enough. It might be a good start, but if there’s no finish, there’s no faith at all, or that’s what James seems to be saying. The story of Abraham here which he cites is about Abraham sacrificing his son Isaac on the altar. At least Abraham acted in faith in doing that, although his act would have been better if he would have interceded before God beforehand so that he would not have actually come right up to the point of doing it. They could have had a ram before this was even made known to Isaac. (see J. Richard Middleton).

Forget it if you think that simply believing something you read or hear read from the Bible or about Christ is enough. It’s not. It might seem life giving, life changing at first, but unless you act on it, it won’t be. Hopefully if we’re failing to act on it, seeds are planted in our hearts to bear fruit later, but the fruit will be actions corresponding to what has been heard. And we must keep doing that. It’s not enough to read and appreciate it. And this is a good place to start:

“Come to me, all you who are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

Matthew 11:28-30; NRSVUE

Christ’s invitation is wonderful to hear and dwell on. But that’s not enough! We must accept it. And we must keep coming back to him again and again. As we do, that faith will be met.

What’s true here is true everywhere. Faith without a response that results in works and life change is no faith at all. Whether or not we have faith is the question or not. Yes, Christ is the answer, but we must follow. God is present to help us. In and through Jesus.