don’t be overrighteous or overwise

In this meaningless life of mine I have seen both of these:

the righteous perishing in their righteousness,
and the wicked living long in their wickedness.
Do not be overrighteous,
neither be overwise—
why destroy yourself?
Do not be overwicked,
and do not be a fool—
why die before your time?
It is good to grasp the one
and not let go of the other.
Whoever fears God will avoid all extremes.[a]

Ecclesiastes 7:15-18

I believe just one of the many devices of the evil one is to get us to think life somehow depends on us, so that unwittingly we begin to do what in our heads we wouldn’t want to do, but in our hearts and lives are all too prone to doing: replace God.

Ecclesiastes is a notoriously difficult book to pin down, and maybe that’s part of not only some of the appeal of the book, but what God wanted from that book for us. To get us to wrestle with something of what the writer (the Teacher, Qoheleth) was wrestling with. Maybe “the Teacher” was making his (or her) writing somewhat nebulous due to his thinking that all is meaningless, rather pointless, fleeting- anyhow.

Note that we’re not being told here to not be righteous or wise. Just not overly so. I take that to suggest that we shouldn’t think all depends on us and on our own righteousness and wisdom. At the same time this passage is not at all telling us that we should throw our righteousness and wisdom by the wayside. Not at all. It’s just that we need to fear God as the writer tells us here. Which I think might point us in the direction that we think and act in the fear of God. That includes a reverential awe and respect, and a trust I believe, as well. We want to trust in God’s righteousness and wisdom to actually impact us and help us have a righteousness and wisdom not warped and therefore of no value or even dangerous by somehow thinking that its our own righteousness and wisdom. We know that Christ Jesus has been made by God to be for us wisdom and righteousness in a redemptive sense, which I think includes impacting our down to earth daily lives (1 Corinthians 1:26-31). What we have from God is both by creation and then new creation in Christ by the Spirit. So we need to learn to be wise and right in dependence on God, not on ourselves.

I think that means we need to say no to our own ongoing urge to take all matters in our own hands as if anything depends on us. Instead we just need to say no, even kick back, relax and enjoy (another theme in Ecclesiastes: God gives the gift, we work hard, and then enjoy). We still hold onto righteousness and wisdom. We need to do it though in a way which honors God’s righteousness and wisdom above our own, our own even being entirely dependent on God’s so that strictly speaking, it’s not our own. Through prayer, prayer and more prayer. Through taking responsibility. And not thinking for a moment that all depends on our righteousness and wisdom. Or else we’ll be violating what the Teacher in Ecclesiastes tells us. In and through Jesus.

what is the most important thing about you?

No matter what else, the most basic truth about us all is that we’re made in God’s image. And that we as individuals are part of the human community. And that God has placed us here to rule over the earth under God’s rulership and authority. That plays itself out in as many ways as there are people, but humankind is to be in that together.

Yes, sin has broken our relationship to God and to each other. So another basic truth about us is that we are sinners in need of salvation. That we’ve all disobeyed God’s will which is essentially our failure to love God in return for God’s love for us, and our failure to love our neighbor as ourselves, sometimes instead, sadly enough resorting to hatred. And violence in word and deed, tragically way too often.

Another basic truth about us is that we as human beings are indeed unique. Each and every animal and species deserves our appreciation and respect for their own importance and dignity. But human beings alone are said to be made in God’s image, as already stated. We need to protect God’s creation, the animals which are important for themselves and for the biosphere, and seek to manage all of that well.

That God became flesh, fully human and one of us in Jesus speaks volumes as to who we are. God forever becoming human in Jesus means that our humanity is valuable, as we read in the Psalms, we’re made a little lower than the angels or it can be translated there, a little lower than God.

That Jesus took our sin on himself, the wrath of humanity poured on him at the cross, and that God turned that very act into God’s means of forgiveness for all who believe is quite remarkable. In God’s purposes done before the creation of the world.

And Jesus rose from the dead, thus defeating death and ushering in the new creation. And all who have faith are destined to share in that new creation when all will be well at last. For all who have faith, and look to God. Through Christ.

But we must beware that this is only about making ourselves feel better, while failing to include others. Like our African American sisters and brothers who have suffered indignity after indignity. Or our Muslim friends, or the LGBTQ+ community. We’re all in this together in the human race. Each and everyone of us is important to God, indeed cherished by God. We need to stand with those whose humanity is falsely seen as diminished for this or that reason.

And so what is most important about you or I is not a whole host of things we might be thinking about now. Like how you voted or what your American political position is. We are loved by God, and out of that love we’re to love each other. All through the saving work of Christ. So that who we are is more and more fully known only in community together with everyone else. In God’s love in and through Jesus.

“Paul, a slave of Christ Jesus”

Paul, a servant of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle and set apart for the gospel of God—

Romans 1:1

The Greek word δοῦλος, translated “servant” in some English translations, might be better translated “slave,” though slavery in modern times is not exactly equivalent to slavery in biblical times, at least there’s a general difference. Bill Mounce has a helpful definition:

In the NT a person owned as a possession for various lengths of times (Hebrew slaves no more than seven years, Gentile slaves without time limit), of lower social status than free persons or masters; slaves could earn or purchase their freedom

A male slave, or servant, of various degrees, Mt. 8:9, et al. freq.; a servitor, person of mean condition, Phil. 2:7; fem. δούλη, a female slave; a handmaiden, Lk. 1:38, 48; Acts 2:18; δοῦλος, used figuratively, in a bad sense, one involved in moral or spiritual thraldom, Jn. 8:34; Rom. 6:17, 20; 1 Cor. 7:23; 2 Pet. 2:19; in a good sense, a devoted servant or minister, Acts 16:17; Rom. 1:1; one pledged or bound to serve, 1 Cor. 7:22; 2 Cor. 4:5

We of course were bought by Christ’s blood on the cross, redeemed from slavery to sin and unrighteousness to be slaves to God and to righteousness. We find freedom in this slavery from what once bound us so that we can live according to God’s will, and not our own. But this is never coercive, which might explain in part why it is often translated “servant.” There is a perfect freedom in this. Either way actually, we’re doing what we want to do. As slaves to sin (Romans 6), we want to sin, but find that it is enslaving and debilitating, indeed self-destructive. But as servants/slaves of Christ, we’re finding our way into what God intended for us in the first place. And in that we find rest, peace and contentment. But on this side, and especially given our tendency to drift back, it often feels difficult and confining. To be a slave of Christ ends up meaning that we do what Christ did, take the way of the cross and follow. In so doing we end up denying ourselves and doing what left to ourselves we would never do, at least not with the same motive and heart attitude. In and through Jesus.

 

“the redemption of reason”

The wise will be put to shame;
they will be dismayed and trapped.
Since they have rejected the word of the Lord,
what kind of wisdom do they have?

Jeremiah 8:9

In a challenging, but interesting article, Dallas Willard speaks of a crisis of reason not only in the universities, but right in our Christian schools. Aptly called, “The Redemption of Reason,” because Willard is making the point that sin through bad philosophy has shipwrecked reason, so that it is now essentially meaningless. And what has gone down with it is any idea of moral knowledge. All lost because it has been separated from its source and ground, or place, from God who is spirit, and why creation exists in the first place (my words in part here; I would highly recommend a slow read of that article).

The Bible is essentially reasonable, even when we can’t track with all that is happening entirely. Taken as a whole, then considered in its parts, we can say without a doubt that there is plenty of sense in the story, whether or not it jives with all of our sensibilities. The problem nowadays is that our outlook has been shaped from centuries of what amounts to essentially bad philosophy in different forms, which end up denying truth because they’re untethered from the one source of truth, God. And so we go gallivanting, who knows where.

Religion is looked down on as something like old school. Of course the one revelation is fulfilled in Christ and the good news in him as unfolded from the pages of Scripture. Reason is very much apart of our faith, essentially Christ’s resurrection in history at the center of that, along with the reality of God mediated to us in Christ by the Spirit.

Where does that leave us? In a crisis even in our Christian circles, because we’ve by and large retreated from reason because of how it is understandably failing in the secular universities. We have done so by placing our study and appropriation of Scripture in a separate category probably without knowing it, because we have to make do in the real world. And Scripture seems different, anyhow. Well it is, and it isn’t. It’s from God, but it’s right down to earth where we live in our humanity. And that certainly includes reason.

Again what’s needed is nothing less than the redemption of reason, according to Willard. And Christians must lead the way, or show the way, because reason itself loses all significance apart from God, and won’t stand on its own, completely dependent on the meaning assigned to it. It’s not like we have to figure out the problem; it’s in the air, just assumed, grounded somehow in whatever human endeavor, good things like science, which essentially can’t be the basis of meaning since God is not in their equation.

So we shouldn’t flee from reason, or be apologetic about it. Instead we need to demonstrate through faith the reasonableness of it all, while at the same time holding on to mystery as part of the story, what’s up, and what God is doing in our lives and in the world. And see the gospel in Jesus as essential in all of this, leading us to God and the new life in him.

in this rubble

We heard of the terrible, heart breaking tragedy of a young mother who struggled with mental illness, first shooting her children, an eight year old girl who was a good reader, a rambunctious six year old girl, and a two year old boy who was a smiler, before taking her own life. A year ago she had sought help for mental illness.

We live in a world of heart breaking tragedy. It usually happens on less dramatic levels, but telling in lasting ways for those involved. I can make no sense out of it. There is a part of me which wants to question God like the prophets of old, and other places we find in Scripture such as the Psalms and Job.

It is a sad fact of the matter that we live in a world in which there is insanity with unspeakably horrific consequences. There’s no escape from that. Common grace, called such because God gives it to all humanity keeps it from being worse.

I can only lament over such tragedy. And at the same time believe that God is somehow present through it all.

Pain insists upon being attended to. God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our consciences, but shouts in our pains. It is his megaphone to rouse a deaf world.

C. S. Lewis

I can only go back to God and to the cross of Christ as the hope through which I carry on and live. That somehow in the end God will sort through this mess. That even now God is at work in redeeming what is in bondage, putting together what is broken, bringing beauty into the ugliness of this world.

We need to keep reminding ourselves that it’s our own sin and yes, evil, that brings in a world of hurt. But that God stepped into this world, fully taking that hurt on himself on the cross. With the promise of resurrection. In and through Jesus.

deficits becoming helps

We do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about the troubles we experienced in the province of Asia. We were under great pressure, far beyond our ability to endure, so that we despaired of life itself. Indeed, we felt we had received the sentence of death. But this happened that we might not rely on ourselves but on God, who raises the dead. He has delivered us from such a deadly peril, and he will deliver us again. On him we have set our hope that he will continue to deliver us, as you help us by your prayers. Then many will give thanks on our behalf for the gracious favor granted us in answer to the prayers of many.

2 Corinthians 1:8-11

Some of us are challenged in significant ways. Actually all humans are likely challenged in some way or another. In a sense, just because of sin, we all are.

Some problems can be rather life threatening. Sin can put a choke hold on anyone, and there can seem to be no way out. It takes the form of addictions and sometimes simply liabilities which threaten our sense of well being.

Redemption in Christ frees us from sin’s consequences by freeing us from its power over us. That comes by faith. We look to the crucified, risen Lord for the salvation we need, and we begin to live the new life that brings. And it involves a process which takes time, along with the fellowship of the church and prayer.

In the case of the Apostle Paul and his team, they were evangelizing, sharing the gospel in areas where it had never been proclaimed. And as a result, they were up against it from people who opposed such a message, which seemed to strike at the heart of what they were all about, and ultimately does, although it sets us on the course of being truly human, toward fulfilling our own humanity. And they as well as we face the spiritual enemy, which is bent on keeping people in blindness and chains for ultimate destruction.

One of the truths I find in my own life, which actually is both discouraging, but ultimate encouraging is that the struggles I face can by and by help me to a stronger, deeper faith. What can be discouraging is not only the problems themselves, but the fact that the same old problems we overcame can be back again later, after we think we had overcome them. And rationality is a challenge when we’re cast in the midst of darkness, when all seems lost, and we’re at a loss. But during those times we need to hold on to faith and pray. And have others pray for us, as was true in Paul’s case (see passage above). “This too will pass.”

And so deficits can become helps. I dislike an opposite word or something like it which would mean positives. It’s the way of Jesus, the way of the cross that we are taking. Inherently in the way of our human weakness (read the entire book of 2 Corinthians). But through that, coming to know the Lord’s strength. In and through Jesus.

“you made me, you bought me, I’m yours”

The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy. For God was pleasedto have all his fullness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.

Once you were alienated from God and were enemies in your minds because of your evil behavior. But now he has reconciled you by Christ’s physical body through death to present you holy in his sight, without blemish and free from accusation— if you continue in your faith, established and firm, and do not move from the hope held out in the gospel. This is the gospel that you heard and that has been proclaimed to every creature under heaven, and of which I, Paul, have become a servant.

Colossians 1:15-23

Jeff Manion at the church where we’re taking our granddaughter for the children’s program there gave what would probably be as close to an altar call as you would ever get at that church, summing up this pericope of Colossians, 1:15-23, entitled in the NIV, “The Supremacy of the Son of God,” with these words: “You made me. You bought me. I’m yours.” I think that is pretty apt, and certainly spoke powerfully into a culture in which the designations given to Christ in this letter, were given to the Emperor in that culture, to Caesar.

This passage teaches that God created all things in and through Christ, and for him. That God reconciled all of that creation to himself, including each one of us who by faith receive that reconciliation, through his physical body in his death on the cross. And that therefore, Christ as head of the church is to have the supremacy in all things. So that, as Jeff Manion put it, everything in our lives is to revolve around him. That he is to be the big thing in our lives. Of course Jesus bringing us to God, into relationship with the Triune God.

Without legalistically having to come up with something, I have to ask myself, just what do I need to give to God through Christ today. What might be the big thing to me, other than him, for my own self-interest, rather than Christ’s? Christ made me, he bought me, I’m his. Or maybe I would prefer to put it: God made me through Christ, and reconciled me through the redemption of Christ, and therefore I am God’s in and through Christ, which certainly includes Christ himself. But Jeff’s way of putting it is pithy, poetic, and therefore brings home a powerful point.

Right now there is something which stands out to me, which I would do well to address in my heart and thoughts and actions. It is something I perceive that God might be working on in my life, and wants me to totally surrender, and grow in that surrender. And I’m sure that there will be many other such things that will come up which will need addressed in my life along the way.

Jesus is to have the supremacy in our lives. As Jeff said, he already is the center, yet we also need to make him the center, as in submitting to that supremacy, to Jesus as Lord. As one who is a member of his body, the church: God’s unique place and entity in flesh and blood through the Spirit, in and through Christ, in the world.

the need for lament

To be successful it seems in too many quarters is to be on top of the world in some kind of dominant position, rather than in a vulnerable place of suffering. We want to be fulfilled, to have complete assurance through the working toward dreams being realized. When Jesus tells us to take up our cross and follow him in suffering, to learn what it means to live in participation of his sufferings, becoming like him in his death. That is not what we thought we signed up for when we became a Christian. Of course accompanying that death is the real life, the power of Christ’s resurrection, but again the end is to be like him in his death (Philippians 3).

Lament is surely a big part of this, seen over and over in the psalms, as well as in an entire book, the book of Lamentations, in the longest book in the Bible, Jeremiah, and throughout the Bible, including from Jesus himself. To lament is to enter, or more accurately to realize that we are all entered into the brokenness and ongoing tragedy of this world, and instead of trying to escape it, seeking to live faithfully there through God’s faithfulness in Jesus, as those who suffer and groan along with it, so that it can begin to realize what ultimately will be true healing and redemption into the life that is truly life in and through Jesus.

To not lament is as much of a choice as to lament, but too often it’s because our hearts are hard because we are given over to other gods, maybe the god of consumerism, security, pleasure, “money, sex and power,” nationalism, etc., etc. But to be formed by the gospel is to become countercultural in the way of the cross, which ends up being the way of suffering service and healing lament all in and through the sacrifice and salvation that is in Jesus.

Somehow through lament comes healing, for ourselves, but just as importantly, for others as well. We’re blessed in that way, to be a blessing. Death being at work in us, so that life might be at work in others, all in and through Jesus. And so I want to embrace lament more and more, living where the deepest pain is, so that God’s joy and peace can find its way into those places, so that others might with us find the life that is truly life in and through Jesus.

Christmastide and the coming of the Savior

Before the coming of this faith, we were held in custody under the law, locked up until the faith that was to come would be revealed. So the law was our guardian until Christ came that we might be justified by faith. Now that this faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian.

But when the set time had fully come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those under the law, that we might receive adoption to sonship. Because you are his sons, God sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, the Spirit who calls out, “Abba, Father.” So you are no longer a slave, but God’s child; and since you are his child, God has made you also an heir.

Galatians 3:23-25; 4:4-7

By creation we are God’s children, but we also need that distinction through the new creation. The law holds us as prisoners to sin, and acted as a guardian, or disciplinarian (NRSV) until Christ came. From that time we are justified by faith, simple faith in Christ Jesus. He came to redeem us from the curse of sin under the law through his crucifixion and death (Galatians 3:13).

Therefore we are God’s children and heirs of all God’s promises in Christ Jesus, since we are children of God in and through the Son of God and again, by his redemptive work for us. We are set free to live in faith and by the Spirit, and not under the law, which ultimately in and of itself would condemn us. Even though it also had its useful place in a formative period for God’s people. We are taught our need for God’s grace, our entry into that coming through faith and baptism in and through the faithfulness of Christ, in and through Jesus Christ himself. Whose coming was timely, according to God’s time and working.

 

when all seems lost

There are times when one feels like they no longer matter. Even though that thought can’t really be sustained by reason, the feeling leaves one with no uncertainty.

When I consider the psalms, let alone the rest of scripture, I’m not one who tells people just to buck up and get over it, or simply to think positive, not negative. Life is real and some of what we experience indeed does seem larger than life itself. But we have to go on, in spite of and in the midst of our experience. But we simply can’t, nor should we (with some possible exceptions) set experience aside. It is a part of who we are as human beings. The Bible from cover to cover certainly does not deny that, indeed it does give that fair play and some people might say, “And then some.”

We in and through Jesus have to go on by faith knowing it is God in Jesus who is the Savior. What is not redeemable? We may be crying over the wasted years, over the failure in our lives, over whatever it might be. But in and through Jesus we are part of God’s good work in the world through the gospel. The gospel is that it is Jesus who is in the center, that God is working out his purposes through him by the Spirit, that Jesus as Messiah is king. God’s reign in and through Jesus is indeed quite redemptive taking in all of creation in its brokenness. And that includes all of us in ours.

And so by faith I hold on and go on. Believing in spite of as well as because of. It is God’s work I’m somehow taken up into and included in. In and through Jesus.