trying to see the big picture

Woe to you who desire the day of the LORD!
Why do you want the day of the LORD?
It is darkness, not light,
as if someone fled from a lion
and was met by a bear
or went into the house and rested a hand against the wall
and was bitten by a snake.
Is not the day of the LORD darkness, not light,
and gloom with no brightness in it?

I hate, I despise your festivals,
and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies.
Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings,
I will not accept them,
and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals
I will not look upon.
Take away from me the noise of your songs;
I will not listen to the melody of your harps.
But let justice roll down like water
and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.

Amos 5:18-24; NRSVue

Trying to see the big picture, things as they really are will require both an openness and sustained effort on our part. Amos is a prophet who certainly saw, something inherent within prophets, earlier called seers, receiving a vision from God. And often that vision had everything to do with the times in which they lived, seeing the current situation in light of God’s revealed will, eventually in light of the kingdom of God which was and is meant to bring flourishing to all of humanity, to all of creation.

Amos’s words, indeed his calling was not an easy one, certainly true of all the Hebrew prophets. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. echoed Amos’s words in the most difficult task he undertook of seeking racial justice, equality, and reconciliation. King’s passion was rooted in the gospel, the good news of Christ, and the vision cast through that, calling America to the best in its tradition, though it’s not certain that the US Constitution advocated for individual liberty for all, but that’s another topic, and well beyond what I could address (interesting article on this). But after decades and decades, not to mention centuries of wrongdoing to the Africans enslaved in America, the United States went through the upheaval it did hitting against the climax of the Civil War. Yet not ending with that as more was in the works given that much was not healed and made right. True to a significant extent right up to the present day, in fact becoming most evident in recent times.

There’s no question that just like during Amos’s time, we are up against what seems to be intractable forces, or to try to make it clearer, it seems like the fallout is here, that we are going through a perfect storm as it were, that the result of our ways (I include myself in that, too) has pressed in on us. That people on both sides have had enough. During Amos’s time the poor and oppressed could do little. During our time there is both the sense in which they think they can do more, but those who give up are often tempted to despair with a few giving into violence. And those whites who feel their lives are needlessly threatened by all of this, a few of them are ready for violence as well.

Both Amos and Dr. Martin Luther King’s call is entirely different. It is about stepping back and trying to see the big picture both in terms of what actually is, and what God would have be. That comes through being in scripture (Hebrew scripture and the New Testament- considering the Apocrypha with that) and prayer. And doing so in community, but all of this with an eye to try to see the current reality. Listening to everyone, especially those who are marginalized or feel that way. The poor, the stranger, and in this time where I live, first of all the people of color beginning with African Americans and the indigenous, and along with them all others: refugees, Muslims, Chinese, etc.

Unless we do this, we’re not actually seeing as either the prophets or Jesus saw. With the goal of acting in the love of God which Jesus brought with the willingness to suffer in love and out of that same love, for others. Knowing that the good news in Jesus is one of reconciliation of all, involving working through everything that means. In and through Jesus.

awaiting justice and mercy

He has told you, O mortal, what is good;
and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God?

Micah 6:8

Advent involves the anticipation of God’s justice at long last coming to earth, but a justice that is full of mercy. As we’re told elsewhere in Scripture:

…mercy triumphs over judgment.

James 2:13b

God in the Person of Christ will return and set things right. And that will be a judgment that is ultimately saving. Yes, to purge the earth of the wicked, of wickedness. To do what only God can do, whatever that is, along with how God will do that. We see this worked out in our lives now. God doesn’t just correct us, sometimes when necessary with loving discipline, which to us can be painful. God also sets us in a new path, one full of justice, righteousness, peace, and joy.

What God has done and is doing in our own lives, we can anticipate God wants to do and will do for all, at Christ’s return and perhaps beyond. Now we get into waters which are over our heads in that there is no completely clear word, though theologians vary in this within Christian orthodoxy (note Gregory of Nyssa).

We wish for all what we have received and are receiving from God. In the meantime we seek to do what is just, loving kindness, as we walk in full humility before God, not imagining for a second that we are in less need of God’s grace and help than anyone else. In and through Jesus.

is God a God of wrath, or a God of love?

…God is love. God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins.

1 John 4:8b-10

There’s no escape from God’s wrath in Scripture. At times it seems pretty alarming, even all-consuming. Is the retributive justice that most Christians I know seem to accept, a rather “tit for tat,” or as Jesus reminds us, “eye for eye, and tooth for tooth” a part of God’s justice at work in the world, and in the end? Is there an aspect of God’s justice which is restorative? That seems obvious too, when you consider God’s judgment in Scripture with what seems to be the end goal of blessing those God judges. Could both be at work in God’s justice: retributive and restorative? And what does this have to do with God’s wrath and love? (These questions and my wondering moved by this interesting podcast.)

It seems to me that the standard position has been that it’s both. I take it that whatever wrath comes from God is always an expression of God’s love. When love for God manifested in love for neighbor is violated, judgment always come. I take it as at least primarily God honoring humans and human will, and letting us suffer the consequences of our bad decisions. But at the same time, always offering grace to us in Jesus.

I also believe that God’s love is supremely revealed on the cross, Jesus hanging there. Of course the resurrection essential in that love being poured out on all who have faith in Jesus, and ultimately on all creation in the new creation.

So is God a God of wrath, or of love? We could look at Scripture and without hesitation say both, but I think that’s a mistake. God is in essence love, and whatever wrath and judgment come from God is always and forever an expression of that love. I take it that God is not into retributive justice at all, but only restorative justice.

What’s at stake here? It seems to me right now that how we view God, who we think God is, the most important point for us is at stake here. As was said in the podcast (and other thoughts here gathered from that; click above link to listen to it, quite worth the time), we either see God as one who was angry with us, takes that anger out on the Son, and therefore now can pour out love on us. Or we see God as love through and through, and doing everything out of love, including taking human wrath on God’s Self at the cross in the Son. And turning that into complete forgiveness for all who put their faith in, trust in the Son, in God and that good news in Jesus.

Theology and biblical interpretation are important, but not God’s word in themselves. May God’s word break through to us in Jesus, and transform our understanding, and in so doing change us into the image of Christ. Where love has full sway and directs all things. May God’s love become more and more not only understood, but experienced by us, so that we might help others to become aware of that same love. In and through Jesus.

hit unexpectedly

To the leader. Of David.

In the Lord I take refuge; how can you say to me,
“Flee like a bird to the mountains;
for look, the wicked bend the bow,
they have fitted their arrow to the string,
to shoot in the dark at the upright in heart.
If the foundations are destroyed,
what can the righteous do?”

The Lord is in his holy temple;
the Lord’s throne is in heaven.
His eyes behold, his gaze examines humankind.
The Lord tests the righteous and the wicked,
and his soul hates the lover of violence.
On the wicked he will rain coals of fire and sulfur;
a scorching wind shall be the portion of their cup.
For the Lord is righteous;
he loves righteous deeds;
the upright shall behold his face.

Psalm 11

When I was a boy, I used to root for the Cincinnati Reds, “the Big Red Machine.” Unfortunately they moved out of cozy Crosley Field into Riverfront Stadium, and I think maybe lost something of the edge they had just over that. Such stadiums were fashionable in those days, all the dimensions being the same, you might arguably say, having no distinct personality. I remember when games were being played around 5:30 in the afternoon or so, baseballs from the pitcher would be flying out of the sun into the shadows at home plate, so that the batter had a harder time picking up the spin of the ball. The ball would almost as it were, like disappear, certainly diminished, much harder to hit.

That reminds me of what is going on in this psalm when the wicked shoot from the shadows, actually in the dark at the upright in heart. I take the wicked today to mean spiritual enemies, though they often do their work through humans, particularly authorities, or those who imagine themselves as such. We should expect that in this life.

The answer in the psalm is God’s presence, intervention and love. And the fact that God sees through everything clearly. And that includes the righteous, so that we will have to adjust ourselves and hopefully through that, be changed along the way, albeit gradual, incremental change which often is hard for us to see.

That is part of what we will experience in this life. But we have the Lord with us to protect us, and see us through all of it. With the word that God will take care of it. In and through Jesus.

Christ’s judgment on the nations

“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left.”

Matthew 25:31-33

I wish this passage from Christ’s lips would be taken seriously by those who claim to be Christians. But when it’s not taught with its ramifications, then it will be largely lost, not a part of what faith and life consists of for the many who don’t even see themselves as Christ followers. This goes beyond that, and is really an indictment against the church, which can end up not only asleep at the switch, but even a part of the problem if it doesn’t really take seriously a passage like this, and its implications for life based on the rest of Scripture.

Jesus’s words here echo something of the concern of the Hebrew (Old Testament) prophets about God’s vision of shalom: peace and prosperity for all, which while we know will never be entirely fulfilled until he returns, nevertheless is at the forefront of Jesus’s words of blessing and judgment in this passage.

Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family,[a] you did it to me.’ Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?’ Then he will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”

Matthew 25:34-46

Individuals yes, but also nations will be judged by how they treated those in need, and that includes how they treated all. The rich nations who do not help the poor, indebted nations. Who put their own prosperity ahead of ending terrorism and starvation. Who put national interest above the good of others, and are willing to kill innocents in the process. Nations which refuse to help those fleeing war and death. Nations which have made systems of evil and hold on to them, against ethnicities, here in the United States obviously, against African Americans, along with the Native Americans. And the widening gap between the rich and the poor cannot rightfully be ignored. Christ will judge all of that, and will judge whatever complicity we’ve had in it.

So we need to become aware of this, develop a conscience that is no longer seared, but becoming sensitive, so that we can begin to see Christ where we’ve never seen him before. And be present to help in whatever ways we can. 

In and through Jesus.

the one constant

Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.

Hebrews 13:8

Scripture points us to Jesus, and God’s fulfillment of all things in and through him. One might want to say that Scripture is the constant, and it’s certainly central in all traditions of the Christian faith, of the faith itself, as we might put it. But it points beyond itself to Jesus.

This doesn’t mean for a moment that we shouldn’t pay close attention to all the details in Scripture, because indeed we should. Pre-Christ, during his time on earth, and post-Christ we might say, meaning after his ascension. Jesus made that clear:

“Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. 18 For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter,[a] not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished.”

Matthew 5:17-18

And what is accomplished includes everything. The church should be the light in Jesus which both exemplifies the beginning of that, as well as speaking out on it by those who are pastors and theologians and lay people who learn from such and are so gifted.

Jesus is the one forever constant, and God’s will fulfilled in him. To bring us into the fullness of God the Source of All Being, the Eternal Word, and the Holy Spirit. To right all wrongs and make all things new.

And the church is central to the beginning of this now. In and through Jesus.

the gospel and salvation is not only personal

Of Solomon.

Give the king your justice, O God,
and your righteousness to a king’s son.
May he judge your people with righteousness,
and your poor with justice.
May the mountains yield prosperity for the people,
and the hills, in righteousness.
May he defend the cause of the poor of the people,
give deliverance to the needy,
and crush the oppressor.

May he live[a] while the sun endures,
and as long as the moon, throughout all generations.
May he be like rain that falls on the mown grass,
like showers that water the earth.
In his days may righteousness flourish
and peace abound, until the moon is no more.

May he have dominion from sea to sea,
and from the River to the ends of the earth.
May his foes[b] bow down before him,
and his enemies lick the dust.
May the kings of Tarshish and of the isles
render him tribute,
may the kings of Sheba and Seba
bring gifts.
May all kings fall down before him,
all nations give him service.

For he delivers the needy when they call,
the poor and those who have no helper.
He has pity on the weak and the needy,
and saves the lives of the needy.
From oppression and violence he redeems their life;
and precious is their blood in his sight.

Long may he live!
May gold of Sheba be given to him.
May prayer be made for him continually,
and blessings invoked for him all day long.
May there be abundance of grain in the land;
may it wave on the tops of the mountains;
may its fruit be like Lebanon;
and may people blossom in the cities
like the grass of the field.
May his name endure forever,
his fame continue as long as the sun.
May all nations be blessed in him;[c]
may they pronounce him happy.

Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel,
who alone does wondrous things.
Blessed be his glorious name forever;
may his glory fill the whole earth.
Amen and Amen.

The prayers of David son of Jesse are ended.

Psalm 72

The vision cast in Scripture is that of the kingdom of God encompassing the earth, a rule in which no one is left behind with particular attention payed to the multitudes which either are left behind or given secondary status now. And that vision includes judgment against rulers and peoples who are directly or indirectly involved in oppressing the poor and marginalized, or who have failed to give them needed help.

God’s heart is especially toward the downcast, and God expects God’s people to have that same heart. If our faith is only about how well we’re getting along in life, even growth in Christ-likeness yet without expressed concern about this, then we’re failing to see and seek the realization of this vision so clearly cast in scripture after scripture.

What we’re referring to here involves not just personal sins, but systemic evil as well. When any people for any reason are relegated to a secondary status and worse, than it’s a mistake to suppose that it doesn’t involve something wrong in the works. Often the poor are looked down on, just as James reminds us, and those of another ethnicity and culture as well. Yet Jesus will have none of that. If we’re followers of Christ we’ll learn to develop discernment and a sensitivity to the same.

If we really want to be biblical, then we’ll develop a passion for this. Precisely what the psalmist wrote about in Psalm 72, above. Yes, to be completely fulfilled someday in Jesus. But that light present now in Jesus, a part of what the world should see we’re about in the present, as the church. In and through Jesus.

what John “the elder” and beloved apostle of our Lord might say to us now from 1 John 4:7-21

Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love. This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us.

This is how we know that we live in him and he in us: He has given us of his Spirit. And we have seen and testify that the Father has sent his Son to be the Savior of the world. If anyone acknowledges that Jesus is the Son of God, God lives in them and they in God. And so we know and rely on the love God has for us.

God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in them. This is how love is made complete among us so that we will have confidence on the day of judgment: In this world we are like Jesus. There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.

We love because he first loved us. Whoever claims to love God yet hates a brother or sister is a liar. For whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen. And he has given us this command: Anyone who loves God must also love their brother and sister.

1 John 4:7-21

My beloved friends, let us continue to love each other since love comes from God. Everyone who loves is born of God and experiences a relationship with God. The person who refuses to love doesn’t know the first thing about God, because God is love—so you can’t know him if you don’t love. This is how God showed his love for us: God sent his only Son into the world so we might live through him. This is the kind of love we are talking about—not that we once upon a time loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as a sacrifice to clear away our sins and the damage they’ve done to our relationship with God.

My dear, dear friends, if God loved us like this, we certainly ought to love each other. No one has seen God, ever. But if we love one another, God dwells deeply within us, and his love becomes complete in us—perfect love!

This is how we know we’re living steadily and deeply in him, and he in us: He’s given us life from his life, from his very own Spirit. Also, we’ve seen for ourselves and continue to state openly that the Father sent his Son as Savior of the world. Everyone who confesses that Jesus is God’s Son participates continuously in an intimate relationship with God. We know it so well, we’ve embraced it heart and soul, this love that comes from God.

God is love. When we take up permanent residence in a life of love, we live in God and God lives in us. This way, love has the run of the house, becomes at home and mature in us, so that we’re free of worry on Judgment Day—our standing in the world is identical with Christ’s. There is no room in love for fear. Well-formed love banishes fear. Since fear is crippling, a fearful life—fear of death, fear of judgment—is one not yet fully formed in love.

We, though, are going to love—love and be loved. First we were loved, now we love. He loved us first.

If anyone boasts, “I love God,” and goes right on hating his brother or sister, thinking nothing of it, he is a liar. If he won’t love the person he can see, how can he love the God he can’t see? The command we have from Christ is blunt: Loving God includes loving people. You’ve got to love both.

1 John 4:7-21; MSG

John might tell us something like this: Love out of God’s love. And let nothing get in the way of that. You must first live in God’s love, the God who is love, God’s love given to us in Christ. That love making all the difference in our lives, which also needs to make all the difference in how we live now. And that if we hate, we indeed know nothing at all of God, that whatever profession of faith we have is empty.

John might say that we’re not to be swept up into fear of this or that or anything else. That if we are intent to dwell in and remain in this love, we will not be motivated by fear. And that fear itself is not compatible with this love. If we do fear, then we’ll start being afraid of the God who loves us, who is love, and who again has proven that love in the sending of his Son to die for us so that we might participate together in his very life.

John might add that we can either live in love or in fear. There might be a murky middle ground as we struggle through, but it’s more like either the sun is breaking through, or it’s not. Fear makes it most difficult to love others because we’re not experiencing the love God has given and is giving us. We either live in this love, or we live in fear, one of the two. But John would encourage us to not give up, even as we struggle with fear. God’s love is present in the God who is love, so that by faith in answer to our prayers we can begin to live more and more in that love.

And that no matter what, we should try to love. As we seek to live in the love of God for ourselves, and for all. In and through Jesus.

breaking new ground

While Jeremiah was still locked up in jail, a second Message from God was given to him:

“This is God’s Message, the God who made earth, made it livable and lasting, known everywhere as God: ‘Call to me and I will answer you. I’ll tell you marvelous and wondrous things that you could never figure out on your own.’

“This is what God, the God of Israel, has to say about what’s going on in this city, about the homes of both people and kings that have been demolished, about all the ravages of war and the killing by the Chaldeans, and about the streets littered with the dead bodies of those killed because of my raging anger—about all that’s happened because the evil actions in this city have turned my stomach in disgust.

“But now take another look. I’m going to give this city a thorough renovation, working a true healing inside and out. I’m going to show them life whole, life brimming with blessings. I’ll restore everything that was lost to Judah and Jerusalem. I’ll build everything back as good as new. I’ll scrub them clean from the dirt they’ve done against me. I’ll forgive everything they’ve done wrong, forgive all their rebellions. And Jerusalem will be a center of joy and praise and glory for all the countries on earth. They’ll get reports on all the good I’m doing for her. They’ll be in awe of the blessings I am pouring on her.

Jeremiah 33:1-9; MSG

Jeremiah was in prison, and it was not a promising time. God’s judgment had come and was coming, and the people neither liked that, nor the messenger of it, Jeremiah. God’s promise here though is to see beyond that judgment to God’s restoration. Not that we should brush off the judgment as unimportant, or just a necessary nuisance until we get to the good part. Judgment is actually a necessary prelude to God’s blessing. What the passage is referring to is God’s judgment of the wicked to prepare the nation for what is just and good. In our own lives, God’s judgment comes in the form of loving discipline, to clean house in our lives in ways which we may or may not understand, and certainly we have yet to enter at least fully into that experience.

Breaking new ground is about God’s change in our minds, hearts, and lives. That’s the groundbreaking I’m thinking of here. It requires a commitment before God by us so that God can see that through with the least resistance from us, even cooperating with that insofar as God helps us do so. Again, the prayer God encouraged Jeremiah to pray is applicable to us here:

‘Call to me and I will answer you. I’ll tell you marvelous and wondrous things that you could never figure out on your own.’

Jeremiah 33:3; MSG

And later in this passage we see what we now know to be the ultimate fulfillment of God’s answer to Jeremiah in Jesus:

“‘The days are coming,’ declares the Lord, ‘when I will fulfill the good promise I made to the people of Israel and Judah.

“‘In those days and at that time
I will make a righteous Branch sprout from David’s line;
he will do what is just and right in the land.
In those days Judah will be saved
and Jerusalem will live in safety.
This is the name by which it[c] will be called:
The Lord Our Righteous Savior.’

Jeremiah 33:14-16

Breaking new ground we can see from this passage begins with God’s word, God’s promise, and prayer. We have to expect God to answer, but not dialed down to our own expectation. But instead with answers and blessing we would never arrive to on our own, not even in a million years. In and through Jesus.

the way of peace found in Jesus

The way of peace they do not know;
there is no justice in their paths.

Isaiah 59:8a

And it’s clear enough, isn’t it, that we’re sinners, every one of us, in the same sinking boat with everybody else?

But in our time something new has been added. What Moses and the prophets witnessed to all those years has happened. The God-setting-things-right that we read about has become Jesus-setting-things-right for us. And not only for us, but for everyone who believes in him.

Romans 3:19b,21-22a; MSG

Justice and the peace that comes from that is often the emphasis we hear from younger Christians nowadays. And for many good reasons. For one thing, the gospel often proclaimed and taught in evangelical circles is mostly about our own relationship with God and with others. That is truth, and very needed, and certainly does not exclude teaching about what is just and right, true and good, merciful and bringing peace. But it’s not the entire truth or application of the gospel.

There does need to be an emphasis on justice in society, not just personal righteousness which supposedly brings the needed justice. There is a needed reckoning within the world system to judge and root out, yes, systemic evil. With reference to racial injustice, and many other evils in the world. So this instinct and passion within and active in the younger generations should be welcomed and appreciated.

What we have to be careful of is getting the cart before the horse. Justice in itself is not the point nor the goal, not for the Christian. Jesus and God’s good news of grace and the kingdom come in him is the proper focus. That brings the necessary judgment on evil to be replaced by what is truly the good, flourishing life for humans, for all humanity. 

The emphasis therefore needs to be on Jesus, on God in the human Jesus, the Spirit’s amen and work from that, and the difference that can make, yes, even in this world. In challenging all the injustice, and beginning to see the new world emerge among us. And we shouldn’t fail to mention that it is through nothing short of the blood of Jesus, his death, so that all evil was absorbed into that day on Jesus. So that evil is now dealt with in the truly Christian way through Jesus’s death on the cross. The new life through his resurrection, following.

Not to say that God isn’t at work through some ways in the world which though we would say ultimately is through Jesus and God’s work in him, is not actually linked to that. Indeed that may well be. But the unique way in Jesus in the love for one’s enemies and the way of the cross is at the forefront of what God’s justice looks like. It is tempered with mercy, and brings in the needed full salvation beginning even now. In our lives, but breaking into earthly principalities and powers, high places where this is not only known, but opposed. Even though that’s ongoing on this side of time. Not for the faint of heart, but part of our calling. In and through Jesus.