the love that overcomes (in anticipation of Martin Luther King Jr. Day)

13 If I speak in the tongues“[a] of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast,b]”>[b] but do not have love, I gain nothing.

Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.

Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away. For we know in partand we prophesy in part, 10 but when completeness comes,what is in part disappears. 11 When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me. 12 For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.

13 And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.

1 Corinthians 13

Martin Luther King Jr. Day is just around the corner (Monday), so I’ve been been listening to his speeches, and remarks from witnesses of his time from Martin Luther King: The Essential Box Set: The Landmark Speeches and Sermons of Martin Luther King, Jr.. This morning I listened to his message, Paul’s Letter to American Christians.  And from that comes this.

We look back on him and what he did, and we see him as a kind of prophet from God for his time. Although true prophets are for every time, which is no less the case with him. But what marked him above all, and gave power to his prophetic words was the love which marked all of those words and actions which followed.

People nowadays say (and it’s on car bumper stickers), “Love Wins,” but it’s the love of Jesus Christ found in the gospel that wins, period. Other love might win in some ways, but only the love of God in Jesus is victorious against all the hate and wrong in the world.

We get on our bandwagons, and we might give lip service to certain causes, one quite noble cause being the integration of all peoples, so that no one ethnic group or category is marginalized. But is there heart and hand service to go along with that? It is noteworthy how some of us can be so zealous for political positions, but our personal lives calling into question our professed allegiance to such causes.

But this is where the church through the gospel of Christ is to make the needed difference, or more precisely, to show the difference that the power of God for salvation is to make in the world. 1 Corinthians 13 quoted above is in the context of church relations, so that it is not really about this love in the world, but in the church. Only in and through Jesus can God’s love be manifested in the way described by Paul. Paul is pointing out that all of the spiritual gifts spoken of in 1 Corinthians 12 and 14 are empty and mean nothing apart from this all pervasive love. And he even suggests when you consider the end of 1 Corinthians 12, that love is a way that is superior to the gifts. I don’t think in the end he’s making the case for either or, but again that love is to pervade all that is done in the church. How we love each other demonstrates to us and to the world the power of the gospel.

Racism is a grave and serious sin. It is to have no part in our hearts, and particularly in our churches. But we need to begin with the truth that we are all prejudice in that we all hold to certain myths which affect our view of others (listen to the January Series talk by David R. Williams, “Unnatural Causes: Is Inequality Making Us Sick?”). Myth used here in the sense of ideas which may or may not hold some water generally speaking, but fail at a most basic, needed level. Racism is especially bad because it flies in the face of love; it denies love, and in fact stands in opposition against it. And most often it is not blatant, but subtle. And it’s evident in our neighborhoods, and even in our churches– sad to say.

The love of Jesus Christ through the good news, the gospel in him is the only hope to heal all of the wounds, and help us begin to live well together. All barriers are broken down by that gospel, so that we can learn to love and listen, listen and love. And that should begin in our neighborhoods, and at our workplaces, so that the power of that gospel can have its full effect and be seen in our churches. Different cultures brought together in ways which impact us all for good. In this way we are more human, since inherent to our humanity are relationships marked by love which sees us through the thick and thin; the good, the bad, the beautiful, and the ugly. So that we’re committed to each other, and to the gospel for all peoples in a humility marked by this love.

We are all surely on a learning curve, some of us on a steeper one than others. So we have to pray and think, and work at this. We don’t bale out when we fail or see just how far we miss the mark. Instead we use that as a means of seeing God’s salvation through our commitment to ongoing confession of our own sin and change through repentance into a new way of thinking and living. No less than in the way of love in and through Jesus.

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anger and grace don’t mix

26 “In your anger do not sin”[a]: Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry, 27 and do not give the devil a foothold.

Ephesians 4

Literally, it’s “Be angry,” but the NIV probably captures the meaning well, since it likely is not an actual command to be angry, but rather an accommodation. In fact it is not saying that anger in itself is sin, but suggesting that it can lead to, or become sin.

Ephesians quotes from Psalm 4 (see other translations from the link below, and notice the context):

Don’t sin by letting anger control you.
    Think about it overnight and remain silent. Interlude

Psalm 4:4: NLT

It might be okay to be angry. Anger is dangerous, and best avoided. But sometimes anger is not only acceptable and justified, but it might even be right. Of course the Lord’s anger is always right, what is called righteous anger. And given the evil in the world, it can surely sometimes be quite wrong not to be angry.

But justifiable anger needs to be given over to the Lord in prayer. We most likely will have to confess what is sin in our anger to God. We have to let it go, or at least give it to God as best we can. And we have to counter it with mercy extended to the one who might be in the wrong. Or dealing with the issue of just why we’re angry. Of course the Psalm 4 passage is good on this. Silence is most often wise, especially in the face of what is angering us, or most likely to. We dare not forget the deadly demonic force the tongue can be (James 3).

Anger and grace don’t mix. Do we want to endeavor to walk with God, and hear from God through his word? Then we dare not harbor anger. That opens the door to the devil, and to all the deception that comes with that. It is more than not worth it. It is bad in and of itself.

So no matter what the case, let’s deal with what is provoking or troubling us as best we can: in prayer, silence, pondering, more prayer, and definitely as well endeavoring to listen to God through God’s word. In and through Jesus.

God’s vindication

Vindicate me, Lord,
    for I have led a blameless life;
I have trusted in the Lord
    and have not faltered.
Test me, Lord, and try me,
    examine my heart and my mind;
for I have always been mindful of your unfailing love
    and have lived in reliance on your faithfulness.

Psalm 26

To vindicate means to declare someone innocent (NLT). In fact, read the NLT rendering of the psalm found in the link above.

We are not talking about sinless perfection, because if we were, God could vindicate no one, except of course, Jesus. And we’re not talking about a person who has no room for growth, perhaps especially in certain areas. If Paul didn’t think he had arrived at the goal to which God had called him heavenward in Christ Jesus (Philippians 3), how much less, we?

We are referring to a life of integrity, which actually would necessarily include making things right when one does wrong. A life devoted to God, growing in and through Christ. While we initially need to confine ourselves to the words of this psalm, we shouldn’t stop there. We also need to consider all of scripture, and particularly in the light of the revelation of Christ and the gospel.

Only God can vindicate. Self-vindication is not what we’re after. Although there are times quite trying, when we do speak in defense of ourselves and our lives and conduct, which is certainly the case of the psalmist here. Even though he is asking God for God’s vindication of his life, he is laying out his best case in defense of himself, even while asking God to probe his heart, and test whether or not these things are true.

Jesus is the one God vindicated, ultimately through his resurrection from the dead. And we are in Jesus, so that God’s vindication on us is through him. But within that declaration of innocence or righteousness, which begins by faith in this life, is a life of not only dependence on God, but devotion to him and his will in Jesus. Certainly a life in which ongoing confession of sin will be necessary, both to God and to others we have hurt.

God is the one who will vindicate us, our lives, our sincerity, and the reality of our walk in him in and through Jesus.

God is delighted in change

The Lord told him, “Go to the house of Judas on Straight Street and ask for a man from Tarsus named Saul, for he is praying.

Acts 9

I think it’s both interesting, and actually not authentic, as in corresponding to the truth, and not real when someone seems to think or act as if they have it all together. Change is something which is to occur not only at the outset of our journey of faith, but ongoing, throughout that journey. Scripture bears witness to that again and again, both in precept and in story. We as evangelicals emphasize conversion as being at the point of salvation, and there’s plenty of truth in that. But actually, I think it’s a process which extends from before salvation, and continues on afterward to the very end of one’s life, if I read the pages of scripture correctly.

I believe from scripture and from what I see and experience that God in his grace through Jesus delights in the smallest, real change in us for good in making us more like himself, more like his Son, Jesus. And I’m thinking of change in just any one area, when plenty of other areas in our lives may and will still need some serious work, God’s working of course, along with our active compliance. It’s not like God shakes his head and says something like, “Well, that’s good, but he/she still has a long ways to go.” No. I believe without a doubt in the God who delights in any change in his children, which brings them somehow closer to him, and to his family likeness.

And just as much as that, I also believe that it comes primarily through us praying. Paul’s case (then called Saul), quoted above, is interesting, as he was in the midst of an epic, earthquake-like life changing experience, and in the midst of it, he is praying. I think without a doubt that if we take what is wrong in our lives seriously, and quit excusing it, we will start by confessing it as an actual sin to God, and then begin to pray, seeking him for the needed change, however that should be played out. Certainly a change of heart to begin with, and a change in our lives.

We can’t do this on our own, and we won’t, even if we think somehow that we are. We should take heart that God is bringing us along, and wants our communion with him through prayer, as he continues to make us like his Son, and brings the one family in him more and more into the light of his love and life. In and through Jesus.

we are in process on a journey

Many bumper stickers I don’t care for, including the one we sometimes used to see, “Christians aren’t perfect, just forgiven,” or something to that effect. While it did communicate something important, it seemed to let Christians off the hook for behaving less than well. The wonderful writer and teacher Dallas Willard used to call it “bar code Christianity,” when people somehow thought their profession of faith to get to heaven was enough, with little or no life corresponding.

There is no doubt that it is by grace that we are saved through faith, and not be our works, so that no one can boast. But that passage goes on to say practically the key of that thought. We are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which he has planned for us (Ephesians 2:8-10).

Faith in Christ, in the gospel gives us assurance of eternal life, for sure. And our sins: past, present and future are taken care of. But it also puts us on a journey in a totally new direction. Faith in scripture is always submissive, and involves repentance. That involves a lifelong renunciation of the world, the flesh, and the devil, and instead, often against the grain of even ourselves, following the Lord through thick and thin, no matter what.

We are essentially those in process. We in Jesus never arrive in this life, but we are on a journey. There is a pursuit that keeps us going, even hungry. The completion of everything is promised only at our Lord’s return. Being in Christ, found by God and finding him, means we are on an entirely new pursuit. One aspect of that Paul describes in his great little letter to the Philippians:

Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already arrived at my goal, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. Brothers and sisters, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.

see Philippians 3

This is indeed a growth process. We should be becoming more and more like Jesus, over time. This involves an ongoing renewing of our minds which goes against the grain of conformity to the world (Romans 12:1-2).

And so there’s an ongoing tension in the sense that we are on a journey in which we have not yet arrived. Along the way we might mess up, and we will in some way or another. So that an essential part of it is the ongoing confession of sin, forgiveness and corresponding cleansing. And part of that is the necessity that we walk (or live) in the light, as Jesus is in the light (1 John).

And so we never have a sense in this life of having arrived. Yes, we have those moments, seasons, and times, even if they might seem to be rare, when we especially feel close to God, and when all seems well. But it won’t be long in this life, with the presence of the world, the flesh, and the devil, when we will be put both on the defensive, and the offensive, as we take up the word of truth, scripture and the gospel, and by the Spirit seek to follow on with others in Jesus. Someday the journey will be over, and we will arrive to the fulfillment of all things in Jesus. Until then by grace we press on toward and even in the beauty of our Lord.

finding the way of escape from temptation to sin

These things happened to them as examples and were written down as warnings for us, on whom the culmination of the ages has come. So, if you think you are standing firm, be careful that you don’t fall! No temptation has overtaken you except what is common to mankind. And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can endure it.

1 Corinthians 10

There is a meme or thought that has been going around on the internet for some time which states that God won’t give us more than we can handle. Years back, our Pastor Jack Brown pointed out the fallacy of that statement, that in fact God does allow us to have more than we can handle ourselves, so that we will learn to trust in him, finding his strength in our weakness, words to that effect.  2 Corinthians is a great book to read with that theme in mind. As someone wisely pointed out recently, the 1 Corinthians 10 passage is not referring to struggles and burdens, but only to temptations.

I think the thought behind the meme might have had the above passage in mind, the truth that God won’t let us be tempted beyond what we are able, since he will provide the way for us to escape the temptation to sin. We need to keep both thoughts in mind. We live in weakness, up against forces and even the circumstances of life in a way in which we can’t navigate, or handle ourselves, so that we need to learn to cast ourselves on the Lord, and in our weakness depend on him and his strength. And we realize that we don’t have to yield to the temptation to sin in a given situation. That there’s a way out for us to escape. Think of Joseph running from Potiphar’s wife (Genesis 39).

In the prayer Jesus taught us, we are to pray, “Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one.” That certainly is an admission of our weakness, and complete dependence on God to deliver us from evil, spiritual warfare at least hinted at there. In passing, it’s good to note that the classic spiritual warfare passage, Ephesians 6:10-20 while involving armor and a weapon, is also to be accomplished in one simply standing their ground, not either turning back in flight, or advancing in conquest. That doesn’t suggest a passivity, nor is it to be confused with the advance of the light of the gospel even into places of darkness. This is certainly an important thought since our Lord taught us to regularly pray it.

It’s important not only what we do, but also what we don’t do. Temptation in this world through the flesh (James 1:13-15) and from the devil is very real. We had best not minimize it, but be prepared, because it is in fact a part of the present life. We can’t escape from the temptation itself, but we can escape from the sin which we’re tempted to commit. Temptation also includes sins of omission, in that we’re tempted to not do what we ought to do.

God is faithful, but we must take the way of escape. We must be aware of all of this, and instead of being upset because we are tempted, learn to find the way out which God provides. When we do sin, of course there’s always the confession of sin open for us. Although some sins will require much more as well, perhaps restitution, and carry a great cost. We should never trifle with sin of any kind, be it big (Psalm 19:13) or small. But some sin is to be avoided at all costs. There is a road back, no matter what the sin. But not an easy one, nor without serious consequences.

We look forward to the day when temptation to sin will be a thing of the past. Until then we take heed, and remain watchful. Trusting in God’s help and provision for us in and through Jesus.

a meditation on Psalm 51: our need of God’s grace

Psalm 51 is one of the great passages of the Bible. The NIV‘s translation of the superscription gives its alleged and at least possible setting. Scholars aren’t sure if the superscriptions were added later, or written when the psalms were. And even if added later, they could still be considered a part of scripture itself.

For the director of music. A psalm of David. When the prophet Nathan came to him after David had committed adultery with Bathsheba.

Many times people relegate the Old Covenant to the era of the Law, and fail to see that, while it is indeed preparatory for the fullness of grace (and truth) which came in Jesus, it was actually grace oriented itself. God’s grace, as in undeserved favor and sheer gift is foundational for all human relationships with God, certainly no less true for that time as it is today.

If there is one thing that we need to see when reading Psalm 51 above anything else, we have to see from this psalm the truth of David’s need, and our need today of this grace from God. Of course like the rest of scripture, we need every line, which contributes to the whole toward the understanding God wants to give. But unless we grasp this truth of our need of God’s grace, all the other truth won’t matter, and will be essentially lost, except to condemn us. If we read the psalm carefully and slowly, we will find this to be the case.

Theologians have a term for what I’m getting at here: prevenient grace. We need grace from God even to properly know and have understanding of our sin, and to properly be broken and grieved over it in repentance. The last thing we need to be doing over our sin is to beat ourselves up, and try to make some great sacrifice to God ourselves. Instead we need God’s grace, so that we can properly see and act in the faith which God in that grace gives us in and through Jesus.

Have mercy on me, O God,
    according to your unfailing love;
according to your great compassion
    blot out my transgressions.
Wash away all my iniquity
    and cleanse me from my sin.

For I know my transgressions,
    and my sin is always before me.
Against you, you only, have I sinned
    and done what is evil in your sight;
so you are right in your verdict
    and justified when you judge.
Surely I was sinful at birth,
    sinful from the time my mother conceived me.
Yet you desired faithfulness even in the womb;
    you taught me wisdom in that secret place.

Cleanse me with hyssop, and I will be clean;
    wash me, and I will be whiter than snow.
Let me hear joy and gladness;
    let the bones you have crushed rejoice.
Hide your face from my sins
    and blot out all my iniquity.

Create in me a pure heart, O God,
    and renew a steadfast spirit within me.
Do not cast me from your presence
    or take your Holy Spirit from me.
Restore to me the joy of your salvation
    and grant me a willing spirit, to sustain me.

Then I will teach transgressors your ways,
    so that sinners will turn back to you.
Deliver me from the guilt of bloodshed, O God,
    you who are God my Savior,
    and my tongue will sing of your righteousness.
Open my lips, Lord,
    and my mouth will declare your praise.
You do not delight in sacrifice, or I would bring it;
    you do not take pleasure in burnt offerings.
My sacrifice, O God, is a broken spirit;
    a broken and contrite heart
    you, God, will not despise.

May it please you to prosper Zion,
    to build up the walls of Jerusalem.
Then you will delight in the sacrifices of the righteous,
    in burnt offerings offered whole;
    then bulls will be offered on your altar.