patience in the face of suffering and oath taking

Be patient, then, brothers and sisters, until the Lord’s coming. See how the farmer waits for the land to yield its valuable crop, patiently waiting for the autumn and spring rains. You too, be patient and stand firm, because the Lord’s coming is near. Don’t grumble against one another, brothers and sisters, or you will be judged. The Judge is standing at the door!

Brothers and sisters, as an example of patience in the face of suffering, take the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord. As you know, we count as blessed those who have persevered. You have heard of Job’s perseverance and have seen what the Lord finally brought about. The Lord is full of compassion and mercy.

Above all, my brothers and sisters, do not swear—not by heaven or by earth or by anything else. All you need to say is a simple “Yes” or “No.” Otherwise you will be condemned.

James 5:7-12

In light of James’s warning to their rich oppressors, James tells these believers to be patient until the Lord’s coming. Some say James expected the Lord to come within that generation. Maybe so. I’m not sure we can insist the language found here and in other places has to be interpreted that way. I think not. I would rather see it as God’s judgment being soon given the brevity of life, and that it’s imminent in that it could happen any time. And when life is done, judgment is next (Hebrews 9:27). Of course the judgment spoken of here is at the Lord’s second coming. Bear in mind that the future brings not only the resurrection of the righteous, but of the unrighteous, as well (Daniel 12:2).

James point to the farmer as an example of the kind of patience these Christians in faith are to exercise. There is a process which seems to take time along with God’s working. So patience is a necessity in this, yes, “in the face of suffering.” And with that in mind, James now points to the prophets we read of in a good chunk of the Old/First Testament (Hebrew Bible) who spoke in the name of the Lord. Suffering was their lot, as Jesus pointed out later. Persecution and martyrdom. Not easy, when you read their story. Speaking God’s message and living as God’s people will not go unchallenged in one way or another. And lest we think it’s only about identification with God before the world, it may be about our testimony in holding to God’s goodness and faithfulness in the midst of adversities of any kind, as Job did, even as he presented his case to God. And we remember the end of that story. And I want to just soak in James’s word after these points:

The Lord is full of compassion and mercy.

These words those believers needed to take to heart, and we do too. We wish this for our enemies as well, but if they refuse to respond to this kindness and goodness of God (Romans 2:4), and don’t accept God’s mercy on God’s terms, their end will be according to their deeds. But yes, we need to soak into these words, and let these words soak into us. God’s mercy for us, and for others, yes even for our oppressors. And yet judgment will come, and that too is a word of encouragement, particularly to those who face evil in the form of persecution.

And then James adds a word on oaths. I think it’s in line with making much of taking an oath, as if you are bound by it in a way that you are not bound when simply speaking. God wants our word to be as good as gold so to speak, completely reliable even if not bound legally, morally, and spiritually by taking an oath. Does that mean we can never change our minds, and take back our words, or break our promise? As a rule we shouldn’t. But there may be circumstances when we need to change, or may want to. Which is why we need to choose our words carefully in the first place, if we speak at all. We need to weigh everything in light of what we previously stated and the context. We have enormous freedom, I think, but it needs to be with Spirit-led wisdom. We want to be sure our witness of Jesus is not affected. We want others to see Jesus, and receive for themselves the good news in him. God has what appears to be a change of mind in scripture at times within his unchanging character. There does seem to be some genuine give and take in God’s relationship with people. And God swears an oath as well, we read both in the Old Testament and in the book of Hebrews. So oath taking is not intrinsically evil or wrong. It is the kind of oath taking being done in Jesus’s day and afterward that is evil. As if such an oath is binding in a way that one’s word is not. For God’s people, followers of Christ, there is no place for that attitude or practice.

 

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grace changes

For the grace of God has appeared that offers salvation to all people. It teaches us to say “No” to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age, while we wait for the blessed hope—the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all wickedness and to purify for himself a people that are his very own, eager to do what is good.

Titus 2:11-14

I don’t like talk against religion, and comparing that to relationship, because it seems to me that religion properly understood is what God put in place to bring about relationship, all through God’s grace in Jesus. But we can contrast law and grace, and see from places like Romans 7, compared to Romans 6 and 8, that the law helps us see our need, but ultimately can only condemn us. What we’re in need of is grace (Romans 6) and the Spirit (Romans 8) through Christ. And this grace changes us, in contrast to law. We can’t do it on our own.

It offers, or more literally brings salvation to all people. In other words, this grace is tied to salvation. We can’t do it on our own for sure. We need Christ. Or what we evangelicals like to call “a personal relationship with Christ.” We need to keep reading the entire Bible on what it means to know God. It is quite down to earth, and not just about “me and God.” Yet it is personal and relational. God loves us as if we were the only being that exists, because God is pure love. God can love each and every individual that way, and does.

So that God sent his Son. Remember, God did not hate the world so much that he sent his Son, but loved the world in this way, or so much, that he sent the Son (John 3:16). And while God loves the sinner, when one repents and believes through the gospel, the good news in Jesus of Jesus and his death and resurrection, than one enters into a relational, saving love, which helps one navigate life in such a way as not to please themselves, but God. And paradoxically end up pleasing themselves in the process. Whereas those who live to please themselves, will in the end be displeasing to themselves and others. Or, to get to Jesus’s point: Those who seek to save their lives will lose them, while those who lose their lives for him and the gospel, will actually find them. We begin to find our true selves as God created us, in and through the new creation in Jesus (Titus 3:3-8).

And so we’re all in need. And the answer is to live in God’s grace by the Spirit, a grace available to us all in the salvation of God in Jesus.

 

like Jeremiah, our need of ongoing repentance

Lord, you understand;
    remember me and care for me.
    Avenge me on my persecutors.
You are long-suffering—do not take me away;
    think of how I suffer reproach for your sake.
When your words came, I ate them;
    they were my joy and my heart’s delight,
for I bear your name,
    Lord God Almighty.
I never sat in the company of revelers,
    never made merry with them;
I sat alone because your hand was on me
    and you had filled me with indignation.
Why is my pain unending
    and my wound grievous and incurable?
You are to me like a deceptive brook,
    like a spring that fails.

Therefore this is what the Lord says:

“If you repent, I will restore you
    that you may serve me;
if you utter worthy, not worthless, words,
    you will be my spokesman.
Let this people turn to you,
    but you must not turn to them.
I will make you a wall to this people,
    a fortified wall of bronze;
they will fight against you
    but will not overcome you,
for I am with you
    to rescue and save you,”
declares the Lord.
“I will save you from the hands of the wicked
    and deliver you from the grasp of the cruel.”

Jeremiah 15:15-21

It is so easy to find fault with one’s lot. There is almost always something wrong somewhere. Admittedly there can be seasons which are especially difficult and challenging, even for no fault of our own.

Jeremiah certainly ran into plenty of trouble because of his prophetic call from God. He was to deliver a message which would put his life in jeopardy again and again. He had his enemies who wished to see him dead. And it seemed to him at times that even God was against him. He is aptly called “the weeping prophet.” Some thought Jesus was Jeremiah (Matthew 16:13-14). I tend to want to go back to Jeremiah again and again because I kind of identify with him myself, at least in some of the moods he was in, as well as trying to speak the word of the Lord into a world which is often indifferent, or sometimes hostile to it.

In the passage quoted above (the link is Jeremiah 14 and 15) Jeremiah is in the midst of trouble, and is tired of it. He has had enough, and God seems not only helpful, but deceptive to him. His attitude has turned south and is sour. He even likens God to “a deceptive brook” and “a spring that fails.”

God wastes no time in calling the prophet to repentance. Once again (Jeremiah 1) God gives him the commission, this time conditioned on his repentance. No matter what the outlook, God will see him through, albeit in a difficult task for sure.

This for me is a good and needed word. I too often complain at what in comparison to what Jeremiah went through is nothing. Although it can seem life threatening to me in a different way. And certainly not easy. But repentance of wrong attitudes toward God is basic, if we’re to continue on in God’s will. And a wrong attitude toward life is essentially a wrong attitude toward God when you boil it down for what it really is.

God is sovereign, and nothing happens apart from God, even apart from his will. God is great and God is good, and he is love. We have to persevere in faith in the midst of difficulty. Otherwise we end up becoming part of the problem. And we can no longer figure into God’s solution.

Like Jeremiah, some of us might carry with us a predisposition to easily fall into the pit of discouragement and despair. And like him, we need to heed God’s call again, and when need be repent of charging God with wrong in our complaining and grumbling. What is essential for us is to grasp God’s call and keep coming back. Knowing God will see us through, and with the blessing of the gospel for others, in and through Jesus.

damaged goods?

Cleanse me with hyssop, and I will be clean;
    wash me, and I will be whiter than snow.

Psalm 51:7

Oftentimes, in fact, as a rule it seems, once someone commits certain sins they are largely finished as to serving in the ministry, be it a man or woman. Adultery comes to mind right away. See the superscription of the psalm cited here. And supposedly pornography is an ongoing issue even with some serving in ministry, probably particularly men. Or at least men come to my mind when I think of that problem.

But I think the heart of the problem lies in the general failure of the church, and my perspective is in evangelical churches, but I think this could well range across the board, to deal with these cases forthrightly and thoroughly, so that the offender truly is repentant, and goes through a time of dealing with the issues underlying the failure. One can’t just snap their fingers, then say it’s done, and all is back to what it was before. At the very least it can never be the same, since they can’t take back what they’ve done, and how it affected others, not to mention how it grieved God.

The problem of a sufficient response from the church here in the US is complex, yet the basic fault for that I would say lies at the feet of the church. If we were united like we ought to be, then we could deal with these problems better. Living in a democracy, within that culture, and having easy access to a number of churches, we can escape, and unless we tell the church, or the church has a policy which at least tries to uncover such problems, the sin will never be known. It can be swept under the rug, so to speak, and therefore not properly dealt with. While it probably is good to say that the fault lies mostly with the sinner, the church should not be left off the hook. Yet given our democratic culture, and legalities involved, the church being faithful here could prove to be difficult. But if the church is wise, there certainly can be a good attempt at doing so.

I’m not sure how the Roman Catholic practice of penance works, but it does seem to me that there ought to be a period of what frankly might amount to an assignment to both work through and work on the issues of one’s sin. Toward the goal of full restoration, even though, at the same time, the sin can never be erased. I’m not saying that one who has been a pastor should or should not be reinstated. I would leave that up for each church or denomination to decide. I have to admit, I go back and forth on that one. Maybe, maybe not, I’m not sure. I would like to think so, however there has to be a practice put in place to make that viable, so that the person being restored can be accepted and embraced by the church, and accept that embrace themselves.

And here’s where maybe the biggest rub occurs. The person sees themselves as damaged goods, and think they can never be right with God or others again, not just in position, but in their heart. And the devil gets in there, and has a hay day, piling on guilt and condemnation, which makes one feel lost and at a loss to know what to do. Even dirty, of no use, not fully received by God or others, damaged goods.

I think there’s a better way, but the church along with the one who has committed the sin, must be fully engaged in it. There is no reason that after a period of time a person can have a return to a new normalcy in Christian life and service, even if it can’t be the same as it was before. Again, Psalm 51 is great in helping us walk through this. It offers great hope, but in the midst of ongoing contrition, it seems. A certainly deepened humility seems possible. All of this against the lie that God no longer is merciful, and that the life no longer matters, or can contribute to much good. In and through Jesus.

Peter’s denial

“You will all fall away,” Jesus told them, “for it is written:

“‘I will strike the shepherd,
    and the sheep will be scattered.’

But after I have risen, I will go ahead of you into Galilee.”

Peter declared, “Even if all fall away, I will not.”

Mark 14:27-29

During what we call Holy Week, not long before Jesus’s crucifixion, we find one of the disciples, Judas, betraying his Lord and friend, and another who was more or less the leader of the Twelve, Peter, denying him even with curses. I think sometimes we just push Judas to the side as a reprobate, without understanding Jesus’s love for him, and disappointment in what he did. On the other hand, I think we also tend to minimize what Peter did in denying the Lord, chalking it up to just the weakness of the flesh. While that is indeed the case, and Peter failed to lead the way in praying in the garden of Gethsemane as the Lord told them to (Mark 14:32-42), what Peter did was indeed serious, a grievous sin in openly denying his Lord. Of course after the resurrection and ascension of the Lord, and Pentecost when the Holy Spirit was poured out, he would boldly proclaim his Lord in the face of strong opposition, even death. But in the story surrounding Holy Week, we’re certainly not there yet.

This was both a painful, yet important event for Peter’s sanctification in learning, awareness, and growth, just as it is for ours, as we look back on it, and probably experience something of the same in our own lives. Note how Peter probably saw himself, or was at least open to the thought that he was a cut above all the rest of the disciples. Pride. And of course we read in scripture that pride goes before destruction (Proverbs 16:18). Certainly this is an apt word for each one of us. Any of us are as capable of falling as anyone else (1 Corinthians 10:12-13). The moment we think we’ve arrived is the moment we’re in danger.

What was the difference between Judas and Peter? That’s a big subject, probably much to say from scripture and theology in trying to come up with some sort of answer for that. Simply here, after Peter’s failure, he had the grace of tears (Mark 14:66-72). But Judas seemed to be choked with self-condemnation, and the blame along with the destruction that can go with it. So that instead of a broken and contrite heart that could have led to repentance (Psalm 51), Judas succumbed to the enemy’s voice in rejecting the salvation that is always available in Jesus. Instead he heaped the blame on himself, taking matters in his own hands by tragically ending his life (Matthew 27:1-10).

We have all failed sometime along the way. We have either betrayed our Lord, denied him, or probably somehow both, at one point or another, perhaps a number of times. And maybe not overtly, but in more subtle, deceptive ways, so that we were failing to follow. Weeping while having a broken spirit, and contrite heart is good (again, note Psalm 51). Self-condemnation is not good. Only God is the judge, and God extends salvation to all who are under his just and righteous judgment. Of course on the terms that they would repent, just as Peter did. That possibility is open to us all.

And so, the great salvation of our Lord. Even to us deniers, who in our weakness and sin fail to follow at times. So that we might better understand, appreciate and experience what our Lord did for us on that cross.

getting rid of the “what ifs” and “if onlys”

Joel is a book that can be read or listened to in less than fifteen minutes. You will notice passages which are used in the New Testament, though the fulfillment in Christ seems somehow different in that in Christ is the day of salvation, God having taking on himself the judgment deserved by the world in Christ on the cross. Nevertheless there remains a day of reckoning for all, when the decision and result of our lives will be confirmed, and as it were, sealed.

But for so many, including myself, “What ifs” and “If onlys” can haunt and plague us. And we can rightfully wish that others will do better, that perhaps we can help them by gentle, wise instruction, and above all, by prayer. But we ourselves are left with the fallout of either the poor choices we made, or the lack of good decisions as well, or likely the combination of both. There is certainly nothing we can do in the present to change the past. But we live with God’s promises to us, each and everyone of them somehow fulfilled in Christ:

For no matter how many promises God has made, they are “Yes” in Christ. And so through him the “Amen” is spoken by us to the glory of God.

2 Corinthians 1:20

Back to Joel. A book that needs to be read in its own context, and then in the context of the entire Bible, and considered in how it is applied in the New Testament. For us today in this post, it will be in terms of the “What ifs” and “If onlys” of our lives. First I want to note the call to repentance God makes to his people, one that can still echo to us today:

“Even now,” declares the Lord,
    “return to me with all your heart,
    with fasting and weeping and mourning.”

Rend your heart
    and not your garments.
Return to the Lord your God,
    for he is gracious and compassionate,
slow to anger and abounding in love,
    and he relents from sending calamity.
Who knows? He may turn and relent
    and leave behind a blessing—
grain offerings and drink offerings
    for the Lord your God.

Joel 2:12-14

This call was given in the midst of God’s judgment. Hard times had come from the hand of God, arguably through others who in the end God would judge. So there’s the prior, necessary call to repentance. We are sorry, yes for the consequences our past actions or inaction has caused. But the heart of repentance is always with reference to God. We’ve abandoned God, and we’ve lost out on God’s will for us, as well. We have sinned against the goodness of God, turning to our own understanding and devices. Or whatever we have fallen for in the past, making idols of that, rather than worshiping the true God. Whatever our past, we need to work through it in terms of repentance which gets right to our heart, no less. So that our life will follow.

And then we have God’s gracious promise to help us move away from the “What ifs,” and “If onlys”:

“I will repay you for the years the locusts have eaten—
    the great locust and the young locust,
    the other locusts and the locust swarm—
my great army that I sent among you.
You will have plenty to eat, until you are full,
    and you will praise the name of the Lord your God,
    who has worked wonders for you;
never again will my people be shamed.
Then you will know that I am in Israel,
    that I am the Lord your God,
    and that there is no other;
never again will my people be shamed.

Joel 2:25-27

Exactly how that plays out, or what it looks like for each one of us, we do not know. We have to trust God in that.

All of this is in the context of the big picture, for Christ and for the gospel. It is not about us having our own dreams fulfilled, but rather, the dreams which God gives us:

“And afterward,
    I will pour out my Spirit on all people.
Your sons and daughters will prophesy,
    your old men will dream dreams,
    your young men will see visions.
Even on my servants, both men and women,
    I will pour out my Spirit in those days.
I will show wonders in the heavens
    and on the earth,
    blood and fire and billows of smoke.
The sun will be turned to darkness
    and the moon to blood
    before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the Lord.
And everyone who calls
    on the name of the Lord will be saved

Joel 2:28-32a

We can be assured that no matter what our past, if we repent, God will somehow restore the years, so that we can serve him in and through Christ for the gospel. As witnesses by how we live, and what we say. In and through Jesus.

learning the language and heart of contrite brokenness

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.

Psalm 51:1-2

Psalm 51 is the great penitential psalm, attributed to David in the aftermath of his terrible sin in committing adultery with Bathsheba, and being complicit in her husband Uriah’s death. We know the story from scripture, and the fallout which followed. Once when I was going over the psalm and rather overcome by its magnificence, I made the statement that it arguably never would have been written apart from David’s sin, but sin is never ever worth whatever good might come out of it. Yet God is the redemptive God, in the work of redeeming sinners, and even bringing good out of what forever remains evil.

There is what’s called soaking in God’s presence. I think it’s good to soak in scripture, as well, to soak in God’s presence in scripture. And in this passage, which can help us learn both the language and heart of a contrite brokenness. Contrite in the sense of being sorry, but not sorry just over the consequences of sin, but over the sin itself, especially in the sense of being against God, and then from that, grieving over its hurt and loss it has inflicted on others. Not to suggest that we don’t find salvation even in the midst of this, as is quite evident in the psalm itself.

I am in this psalm right now, working on memorizing it to begin with, and then in prayer, offering it to God. So that it must become not only the psalmist’s prayer, but my prayer as well.

A new thought did dawn on me, something that had never occurred to me, or hit me in the same way, something I want to pray through, and perhaps somehow act on. Whatever my own thoughts and wishes, my intention is not to be in a hurry, but let this language become my own, so that the heart from that language might be my own heart, too. In and through Jesus.