better days are coming

“‘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

One of my favorite pastors used to say, “The best is yet to come!” And that’s true in God’s world. In the world in which we live, which in the end is also God’s world we see trouble piled on trouble, no end of it. If it isn’t one thing it’s another and another and then the next problem. There’s always something. And it’s not just problems we might solve, but issues far beyond us. And we can thank only ourselves collectively as well as individually for much of the mess we’re in.

But God’s promise in Jesus is that better days are coming. God can’t wait to forgive and pour out God’s love on us. This does require repentance of sins, of our own foolish ways. All we have to be is honest to God, to others. God will take care of everything in the end. In the meantime God helps us, setting us on a course to be a part of solution the world needs, nothing short of God’s kingdom and that kingdom come in Jesus.

But we can take solace and even find relief with the thought that good days are ahead. That the problem or problems, troubles and trials which weigh in on us will someday be a thing of the past. It will all be gone. This can help us in the present, not to ignore hard reality, but not be suffocated in it, either. God will help us now as we look forward to the day when it will all be gone. In and through Jesus.

an important priority for us

News of this reached the church in Jerusalem, and they sent Barnabas to Antioch. When he arrived and saw what the grace of God had done, he was glad and encouraged them all to remain true to the Lord with all their hearts. He was a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and faith, and a great number of people were brought to the Lord.

Acts 11:22-24

I myself am convinced, my brothers and sisters, that you yourselves are full of goodness, filled with knowledge and competent to instruct one another.

Romans 15:14

Goodness is inherent in God. God is good as we read over and over again in the psalms. And humans are made in God’s image. What goodness resides in humans is indeed fragile and broken, but existent due to this special work of creation and relationship to their Creator.

Goodness takes on new meaning for followers of Christ. Our goodness is tied to Christ, Christ’s goodness, and God’s goodness given to us through Christ. The Spirit has changed us from people whose goodness is present but mixed with much that is not good into people who have the same kind of goodness as Christ: intent on loving God and loving others as ourselves. And that demonstrated in good works.

It is a gift from God, a part of who we are meant to be as humans, and who we actually are in Christ. That doesn’t mean that there still might be a number of things about us that are not good because that will surely be the case. But goodness should be the dominant desire and drive in us, helping us to confess and renounce and repent of all that is not good.

Ironically the enemy can play on this strength causing us to have unrealistic expectations. We should want pure good in every situation, at the same time realizing that only God can help all the good we desire be realized.

We in Christ and as Christ followers are made good by the Spirit. God’s children with something of the heart of God. In and through Jesus.

one of the devil’s many but most effective lies

Soak me in your laundry and I’ll come out clean,
scrub me and I’ll have a snow-white life.
Tune me in to foot-tapping songs,
set these once-broken bones to dancing.
Don’t look too close for blemishes,
give me a clean bill of health.
God, make a fresh start in me,
shape a Genesis week from the chaos of my life.
Don’t throw me out with the trash,
or fail to breathe holiness in me.
Bring me back from gray exile,
put a fresh wind in my sails!
Give me a job teaching rebels your ways
so the lost can find their way home.
Commute my death sentence, God, my salvation God,
and I’ll sing anthems to your life-giving ways.
Unbutton my lips, dear God;
I’ll let loose with your praise.

Psalm 51:7-15; MSG

I don’t know why this is not included online, but this is Eugene Peterson’s rendering in The Message Bible of the ascription given to the psalm, part of the inspired text or not, but certainly steeped in tradition: “A DAVID PSALM, AFTER HE WAS CONFRONTED BY NATHAN ABOUT THE AFFAIR WITH BATHSHEBA.” This may well have been written by David during that time (2  Samuel 11-12). Whatever the case, the psalm itself lends its voice to whoever and whatever. It is general enough, that it includes all who have sinned grievously in big ways, as well as perhaps small yet willful acts which also need repentance and God’s cleansing, saving work.

One of the devil’s big lies, which we need to learn to recognize and reject is the lie that certain sins put people beyond the pale of usefulness to God. I know when a pastor falls there is disagreement as to whether after repentance and time for restoration he or she can be reinstated to their pastoral position. I tend to think so myself, but that’s not specifically what we’re dealing with here. There’s no doubt that such sins can haunt the one who is guilty as is evident in Psalm 51 itself, and that there will be fallout or consequences from it, as we see in the case of David (see 2 Samuel 13-15, also 12:10-14).

But we need to get rid of the notion and again outright lie for sure that such a person can no longer be useful in God’s service in love to others. I know this is old covenant, but David himself was not stripped of his position as king, nor of honor as we see Jesus himself called “the son of David” as not just a fact, but as likely an honorific title. How much more in the new covenant can such a one be restored?! I think of this passage about an erring sinner in the church:

Now, regarding the one who started all this—the person in question who caused all this pain—I want you to know that I am not the one injured in this as much as, with a few exceptions, all of you. So I don’t want to come down too hard. What the majority of you agreed to as punishment is punishment enough. Now is the time to forgive this man and help him back on his feet. If all you do is pour on the guilt, you could very well drown him in it. My counsel now is to pour on the love.

The focus of my letter wasn’t on punishing the offender but on getting you to take responsibility for the health of the church. So if you forgive him, I forgive him. Don’t think I’m carrying around a list of personal grudges. The fact is that I’m joining in with your forgiveness, as Christ is with us, guiding us. After all, we don’t want to unwittingly give Satan an opening for yet more mischief—we’re not oblivious to his sly ways!

2 Corinthians 2:5-11; MSG

We need to get rid of the notion, yes the lie, once for all that when a person sins bigtime there’s nothing left for them, except forgiveness of their sin when they confess it. Surely they should live in deep humility the rest of their lives. But they also need “to inhabit [others’] forgiveness and God’s forgiveness,” to accept that as a matter of fact and reality.

This truth must never be abused to mean that I can do what I please, even though it’s sinful, knowing that in the end full restoration will happen. That is both dangerous to the person doing it, who may in fact not see fit to repent, not to mention the damage that occurs. We can’t have both our way and God’s way. At the same time, we also must not set aside God’s amazing grace for all sinners, including those who have abused this truth, who return to him in genuine repentance, not just sorry about the consequences of their sin, but that they sinned against God and against others.

In and through Jesus.

returning to our first love

Write this to Ephesus, to the Angel of the church. The One with Seven Stars in his right-fist grip, striding through the golden seven-lights’ circle, speaks:

“I see what you’ve done, your hard, hard work, your refusal to quit. I know you can’t stomach evil, that you weed out apostolic pretenders. I know your persistence, your courage in my cause, that you never wear out.

“But you walked away from your first love—why? What’s going on with you, anyway? Do you have any idea how far you’ve fallen? A Lucifer fall!

“Turn back! Recover your dear early love. No time to waste, for I’m well on my way to removing your light from the golden circle.

“You do have this to your credit: You hate the Nicolaitan business. I hate it, too.

“Are your ears awake? Listen. Listen to the Wind Words, the Spirit blowing through the churches. I’m about to call each conqueror to dinner. I’m spreading a banquet of Tree-of-Life fruit, a supper plucked from God’s orchard.”

Revelation 2:1-7; MSG

To really get a good overall picture, and just how we might fit into the scheme, or what God might be saying to us, we surely need to read each of the seven letters to the churches in Revelation 2 and 3. The first letter here as rendered by Eugene Peterson, or in any translation, for that matter, is striking and noteworthy. This church is as zealous as it gets, but their zeal while at least largely based on head knowledge, has left its/her first love, or the love this church had at first. And thus we might say it was bereft of heart knowledge, or a knowledge driven by love. Love for Christ, and the love which follows from that.

It’s a burden to try to apply these letters to us as individuals, and it’s important to see that they’re actually written to churches. But individuals make up churches, so we all have to ask how they might apply to us, what we might be contributing to the situation. Notice that the blessing at the end is applied to individuals who overcome. I would like to think that I fit, or would prefer to be part of a church like Philadelphia, having little strength, but faithful, and simply being told to hold on to what they have until Christ returns. But we need to prayerfully read and consider all these letters.

How do we fall from the first love we had? And Jesus makes no bones about it, they either have to repent as a church, or he’ll put their light out, so that they’ll be a church in name, only. No church was more active, but that’s doesn’t mean they were okay. Far from it, though Jesus does give them the nod of approval for their hatred of the works of the Nicolaitans, which he too hated.

I’m not sure. I think it can become more about what we’re doing than anything else. Maybe we need to stop in our tracks, shut our mouths, quit doing what we’re doing, maybe something like a silent retreat. Then maybe we’ll be able to hear what the Lord is saying to us. It’s a work of the Spirit, quite beyond us. It’s not like sitting in a schoolroom where we might possibly figure it out with the help of the teacher. No.

I will offer this from my own life and experience. I think the more we realize life is all about love, that God is love, and that Christ’s love for us is as great, deep and true as love can get, then that can help us. But it’s so easy to substitute doing, doing and more doing for the real thing. Let’s find that love, enter into it, live it out with each other, and out into the world. And keep doing that. Then what we do will matter. And Jesus’s life and love will continue among us as a light for us and for the world. In and through Jesus.

a meditation for Ash Wednesday: Luke 18:9-14

To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else, Jesus told this parable: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’

“But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’

“I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”

Luke 18:9-14

He told his next story to some who were complacently pleased with themselves over their moral performance and looked down their noses at the common people: “Two men went up to the Temple to pray, one a Pharisee, the other a tax man. The Pharisee posed and prayed like this: ‘Oh, God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, crooks, adulterers, or, heaven forbid, like this tax man. I fast twice a week and tithe on all my income.’

“Meanwhile the tax man, slumped in the shadows, his face in his hands, not daring to look up, said, ‘God, give mercy. Forgive me, a sinner.’”

Jesus commented, “This tax man, not the other, went home made right with God. If you walk around with your nose in the air, you’re going to end up flat on your face, but if you’re content to be simply yourself, you will become more than yourself.”

Luke 18:9-14; MSG

On this Ash Wednesday, as we enter into Lent, it is indeed a season of reflection and preparation. An important aspect of it is the acknowledgement and confession of our own sins. And of how we fall short of God’s perfection and will. We should never think we have a leg up on others. Yes, some sins are more devastating than other sins; we can’t escape that reality. At the same time, we too sin, and are sinners in that sense. We’re no longer sinners as before, as those declared and made righteous in Christ, so that we’re on a new path, the path of righteousness (Psalm 23). Yet we still have sin and sin (1 John 1).

It is particularly important during this time when some may think they’re better than others given what’s happening in our nation. We need to face the fact of our own complicity. Even the sin of simply not being present, of excusing one’s self, or not making the effort to understand what’s wrong, and how it affects actual people, including possibly some of our neighbors.

The point is that we need to accept that we too are in need of ongoing forgiveness, and a deeper repentance, which gets right to the heart of our own need, as well as the need around us.

This is not something we beat ourselves with again and again. But in a sense it’s where we live and is actually for our good. In the process we’ll more and more come to find the special place God has for us. In God’s love for all. In and through Jesus.

for Martin Luther King, Jr. Day: the politics of the good news

When Jesus heard that John had been put in prison, he withdrew to Galilee. Leaving Nazareth, he went and lived in Capernaum, which was by the lake in the area of Zebulun and Naphtali— to fulfill what was said through the prophet Isaiah:

“Land of Zebulun and land of Naphtali,
the Way of the Sea, beyond the Jordan,
Galilee of the Gentiles—
the people living in darkness
have seen a great light;
on those living in the land of the shadow of death
a light has dawned.”

From that time on Jesus began to preach, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”

Mark 4:12-17

This Isaiah-prophesied revelation came to life in Galilee the moment Jesus started preaching. He picked up where John left off: “Change your life. God’s kingdom is here.”

Mark 4:17; MSG

Jesus’s message and proclamation was “the good news of the kingdom” (Matthew 4:23). The gospel is actually political through and through. Of course it’s about our individual salvation as well, but it includes so much more, really everything within God’s creation and human culture. God’s kingdom in King Jesus was coming in, but not in the way that people would naturally anticipate. They wanted in one way or another for God to end Rome’s rule over them. But God saw a much bigger picture, and really an altogether different one. Yes, it was about fulfilling God’s prior promises to them, but in the ways of a costly love which would break down all barriers, creating one new humanity, a beautifully woven mosaic of people groups together (Ephesians 2:11-22).

During this Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, let’s take time to pray and ask God to show us where we are blind and resistant to what God has done, is doing, and will complete in and through King Jesus. And what works God has for us in what God is doing now in this regard (Ephesians 2:10; MSG). In and through Jesus.

the need for repentance and lament

O Israel, come back! Return to your God!
You’re down but you’re not out.
Prepare your confession
and come back to God.
Pray to him, “Take away our sin,
accept our confession.
Receive as restitution
our repentant prayers.
Assyria won’t save us;
horses won’t get us where we want to go.
We’ll never again say ‘our god’
to something we’ve made or made up.
You’re our last hope. Is it not true
that in you the orphan finds mercy?”

“I will heal their waywardness.
I will love them lavishly. My anger is played out.
I will make a fresh start with Israel.
He’ll burst into bloom like a crocus in the spring.
He’ll put down deep oak tree roots,
he’ll become a forest of oaks!
He’ll become splendid—like a giant sequoia,
his fragrance like a grove of cedars!
Those who live near him will be blessed by him,
be blessed and prosper like golden grain.
Everyone will be talking about them,
spreading their fame as the vintage children of God.
Ephraim is finished with gods that are no-gods.
From now on I’m the one who answers and satisfies him.
I am like a luxuriant fruit tree.
Everything you need is to be found in me.”

If you want to live well,
make sure you understand all of this.
If you know what’s good for you,
you’ll learn this inside and out.
God’s paths get you where you want to go.
Right-living people walk them easily;
wrong-living people are always tripping and stumbling.

Hosea 14; MSG

Hosea, like all of the Old Testament prophets (called a “Minor Prophet”, the first of twelve of them only because of the relative shortness of the writing) is not a light lift. You see at the outset that God calls Israel, the northern kingdom to whom Hosea was writing, “a whorehouse” (1:2; MSG). To read or listen to it, one ends up in quite an interplay between God’s exposure of Israel’s sin and its ugliness, what that means to God, along with the pronouncement of God’s judgment on them. Back and forth with different imagery, but by and large in terms of Israel having been married to God, but departing from him for other lovers. It is not pretty or comfortable, and we do well to not rush to the end of the book, until we’ve at least taken in all that was said before.

The prophets really don’t mince words, and some of what they say is indeed frightening, and abhorrent at least to our ears. The prophets like Hosea call us back to God, away from our sin, and the idols we so easily embrace in our lives. John ends his first letter warning his dear children to keep themselves from idols (1 John 5:21).

What the prophets call God’s people to, each and everyone of us, is repentance and lament. God wants us to listen, to catch something of God’s longing for us, and to respond in openness to God’s call. We can’t break our own hearts, they are often so hard to begin with. We want broken hearts, but the only way toward that is an openness to repentance and lament. Repentance has the idea of stopping what we’re doing, where we’re going, turning around and facing God, and coming back just as we are, in all our failure and guilt. Lament is the idea of brokenness before God. It was accompanied in the Old Testament and beyond by one ripping their garment, and dressing up in sackcloth and ashes, with loud cries. That could all be show, just as Hosea says in this letter, but God wants us to come to take his words seriously. Not for someone else, but for ourselves. A word for us together, but one in which each of us shares in the sin.

This is a necessary call to us from Scripture, from the prophets. They are not condemning at all. You can see that when you note the end of Hosea’s prophecy quoted above. God is always longing and determined after judgment to fully restore. God in love wants humans for himself, and wants them also to live in that love with each other. Something for us today, just as in Hosea’s time. In and through Jesus.

learning from our errors

Produce fruit in keeping with repentance.

Matthew 3:8

John the Baptist (Baptizer) was preparing the way for the Messiah, Jesus, in the mission God gave him. A sea change was coming, and the people needed to be prepared. Most of these Israelites were desiring the end of the Roman occupation and rule. They wanted God to fulfill his kingdom promises. So that alone surely increased their willingness to listen to this unusual man in his dress and manner, tell them to get ready, that he was there to introduce them to the Messiah, no less. Hushed anticipation, and readiness to do whatever to be in line, in this blessing. But for too many, on their terms.

We need to understand something of that backdrop and context to bring it forward to today. We too have our expectations, or way of life we think is good, and from God, indeed God’s will, or at least we think his blessing on it. But we may have pretty much missed the boat. What if our conception of the Christian life is hit and miss, surely some overlap by the Spirit, but still falling short of what King Jesus has for us which is a kingdom crowned in suffering, in the way of the cross no less?

I want to be ultrasensitive to the seemingly smallest points in which I fail. Never to excuse them for an instant, but instead, to change, change, yes, change. In keeping with my professed repentance in wanting to follow Jesus, and not my own agenda.

That will hurt and be painful to work through at times. But that is surely a part of the change we need to be together more and more like Jesus in this world. Living solely in his kingdom. In and through Jesus.

peacemaking and persecution

Blessed are the peacemakers,
for they will be called children of God.
Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

Matthew 5:9-12

At the end of what has often been called the Beatitudes, Jesus possibly juxtaposes two thoughts side by side which are related, but at odds with each other.

How can you be a peacemaker, yet be on the short end, indeed experiencing violence? Enter the world of Jesus.

Jesus was indeed a peacemaker, from Scripture we say by the blood of his cross, and that’s for sure. He took human wrath on himself to end human wrath. We say God’s wrath, but I would prefer to say God’s wrath against evil. God in judgment took the wrath of humankind on himself there at the cross, to end it once for all. And peacemakers following Jesus indeed need to point this out.

Peacemaking as Jesus was describing it here definitely was related to the forgiveness of sins and reconciliation later established by the cross. For us on the ground now it’s a matter of promoting peace on God’s terms, the peace of the kingdom established in Jesus. It is a peace grounded in faith and allegiance to King Jesus, and a peace based on his teaching and life. Made possible again through his death. We can’t do this on our own.

But even when we are people of peace, the peace spoken of here, that doesn’t mean we don’t end up becoming victims of war, violent opposition, violence in one form or another (Psalm 120). Certainly in being cursed, verbal violence, but sometimes suffering physical persecution. For us in the United States, this seems remote, of another world for good reason. We rarely if ever face one such incident of actual physical persecution during our lifetime. That probably speaks more of the society in which we live, but I wonder if we were more faithful in following Christ if we would see some incidents of it.

Is our persecution really because of righteousness and what is just, as well as for Christ? A good test might be if we’re truly becoming peacemakers in the way of Christ. Otherwise the “persecution” we experience might indeed need to be put in quotes, more about ourselves and our offenses, and less if at all about the offense of Jesus.

Would that life would be this black and white. Unfortunately there are times when it is partly our fault. We may not understand why, it may be nothing blatant or known on our part. Then there are the times we stumble and know better. Ironically those end up easier for us to make peace by simply asking for forgiveness. The other times, we know that somehow our weakness might be in play, but we have knowingly done nothing wrong.

It is hard to know what to do. To be as wise as serpents, but harmless as doves is surely something we need to be considering here. But we may just have to take what persecution comes our way, hopefully God doing a work for good in the one persecuting us, so that they might repent and change due to the love of God present even through us, in and through Jesus.

Jesus says no

From that time on Jesus began to preach, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”

Matthew 4:17

Recently I took a simple, perhaps oversimplified Enneagram test (#2). It came out “reformer” with a description which seemed apt. I found it freeing since I’ve always resisted resisting. I really dislike challenging the status quo, challenging others. I would rather just try to make things work the way they are. But often when I’ve opened my mouth, it’s to challenge something or another, hopefully gently for the most part. Though as I’m getting older I’m trying to be more quiet. It is freeing though to recognize that we’re wired a certain way, so that we don’t have to keep wishing we were someone else, or had this or that trait or gift. “It takes all kinds.”

Jesus was a reformer for sure, indeed he not only led a revolution, but was the revolution in and of himself. His message was to repent, and that wasn’t only about personal sins. The heart of that call to repentance was to say no to all else except God’s approaching kingdom in him, in King Jesus. So Jesus was saying no to their views of God’s kingdom, indeed to their own kingdoms.

That message echoes to our present day. Directly understood relevance for that day, but really just as relevant today. Anything we idolize and hold up as the ideal, whatever it might be. Jesus tells us to repent, to change our minds, to realize that the true light and life is in him, in God’s kingdom coming and present in him. Everything is to be judged in that light, and not in any other light.

I’m sure our reply, and this includes many evangelical Christians is that the world doesn’t work that way. We can’t live in and run the world according to Jesus, his life and teaching, for example, the Sermon on the Mount. So we’re telling Jesus, no. “No, that doesn’t work. I can only go so far and no farther.” And in doing so, we’re telling Jesus no. It’s not enough to say a little faith won’t hurt for life. It’s either all the way, or not at all.

That’s what Jesus was getting at. A difficult message for sure, even impossible apart from Jesus. But Jesus says no to all our imaginations of what we think we need, what our world needs, what the world needs. It’s either Jesus, his kingdom, which means the way of the cross not just for salvation, but for all of life. Or nothing at all. It’s up to us. Will we repent or not? A call I need to hear as much as anyone else. In and through Jesus.