take what joy you can, but live in reality

It is better to go to the house of mourning
than to go to the house of feasting,
for this is the end of everyone,
and the living will lay it to heart.
Sorrow is better than laughter,
for by sadness of countenance the heart is made glad.
The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning,
but the heart of fools is in the house of mirth.

Ecclesiastes 7:2-4; NRSVue

The title for Ecclesiastes 7:1-14 in the NRSVue is “A Disillusioned View of Life.” Probably Qoheleth, translated “the Teacher” is off the mark in at least some of what he (or she) is saying. We can say it’s all a matter of perspective. From their point of view, from where they were looking, they were telling it like it is, and trying to express wisdom. And there definitely is a measure of profound wisdom (see toward the end of Ecclesiastes).

I find the part quoted above most helpful for myself. Life “under the sun” and in seeking to follow Jesus and just considering our own weaknesses and limitations along with difficulties we face is indeed at least full of challenge. Life is hardly foolproof. We make many mistakes and hopefully keep learning along the way. If we expect a bed of roses here, we might as well forget that. Instead we’ll find some good, some joy, but much sorrow and possible hardship, even some possible danger along the way.

Paradoxically if we can just accept this, and choose to comfortably live in it or settle in it, then we can find not only a bit of joy here and there, but really joy even in the midst of sorrow. The Spirit helps us, but only as we accept things as they are.

“The Teacher” in Ecclesiastes is trying to help people steer a good course or if the title is apt, make the best of a bad situation. Yes, much is pretty dour in this book. Maybe that’s in part why I’ve been drawn to it over the years, because it does seem to line up with life in the real world, or at least much of my experience of it.

Our hope and expectation is in God through Christ, not in the circumstances of life itself. We receive all that God gives, and can enjoy some of that. But ultimately that we might live for others, even as Christ is teaching us by the Spirit together. Enjoying life even as “the Teacher” tells us in Ecclesiastes, but with our feet on the ground not in some make believe place, but in the real world where we all live. And especially with a heart and ear turned toward suffering, that we might help others. In and through Jesus.

opened eyes (from God)

If I had said, “I will talk on in this way,”
I would have been untrue to the circle of your children.
But when I thought how to understand this,
it seemed to me a wearisome task,
until I went into the sanctuary of God;
then I perceived their end.
Truly you set them in slippery places;
you make them fall to ruin.
How they are destroyed in a moment,
swept away utterly by terrors!
They are like a dream when one awakes;
on awaking you despise their phantoms.

When my soul was embittered,
when I was pricked in heart,
I was stupid and ignorant;
I was like a brute beast toward you.
Nevertheless, I am continually with you;
you hold my right hand.
You guide me with your counsel,
and afterward you will receive me with honor.

Psalm 73:15-24; NRSVue

It is easy to be down in the mouth and grumble. And after all, there are terrible things going on in the world. And we’re faced with difficulties in our own worlds that seem hard to navigate. I remember working with an older man years ago who was quite sour. I think he loved God, but the downsides of life had seemingly gotten the best of him. That’s my memory of him, sadly enough.

What if instead we could be like the psalmist above? The entire psalm is one of those many gems in scripture. But what’s quoted above is enough to get the point. We need new perspective, to have our eyes opened. Frankly for me it’s like gravity. I naturally sink back into being downcast, in despair, and therefore down in the mouth if I do speak or speak too much. What I find I need is God’s lifting, opening my eyes to see what only God can help me see. And this shouldn’t be just an individual endeavor, but a group- indeed church endeavor, as well. But the psalmist is talking about themselves. They would be an example to others and potentially influential especially hopefully to those younger.

God’s word and revelation is what picked the psalmist up. The same goes for us. When the world for whatever reason seems closing in on us, God wants to and can and will open up a completely new vista, new view to us. And help us become settled in that, no longer unsettled in the other. Something we’ll have to continue to receive in this life. In and through Jesus.

unrealistic expectations

Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

Matthew 5:48

The world rightfully expects something more from those who profess the name of Christ as “Christians.” Unfortunately there is mostly disappointment, too often for more than understandable reasons. And really, if anyone knows any of us through and through, then likely there will be disappointment. But expectations can be mistaken, too. After all, what exactly would the world expect of Christians? The same thing they wanted from Christ? That he would be their Bread-King and take care of all their wants, and make life work they way they thought it should (John 6:15 contrast with John 6:41)?

The New Oxford Annotated Bible makes an interesting observation: “This understanding of ‘perfection’ is closely linked with the love commandment (19.19)” (1790).

“If you wish to enter into life, keep the commandments.” He said to him, “Which ones?” And Jesus said, “You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; Honor your father and mother; also, You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” The young man said to him, “I have kept all these;[a] what do I still lack?” Jesus said to him, “If you wish to be perfect, go, sell your possessions, and give the money[b] to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.”

Matthew 19:17b-21

It’s important that we stay grounded in expectations that are not only realistic for us in this life, but don’t miss the point. Life is about loving God and loving our neighbor, which means every human being on earth, if I understand Jesus’ teaching correctly. We need to be quick to make things right when we do wrong, which at heart is always a violation of such love. But our goal in life should be to simply so love, in the way of Jesus.

Love will take on many shapes and colors, and again won’t always be recognized or appreciated by the world. Certainly that was true of our Master, and will be all the more the case with us, his uneven, imperfect followers. But people need to see the difference in us. Yes, even you and I, with all our limitations, imperfections, and need I say, shortcomings. What must override everything else in our lives is a love for others which comes out of our love for God. Ever growing, of course always grounded in God’s grace to us. And shaped like a cross with the growing likeness of Jesus imprinted on it. By the Spirit. In and through Jesus.

accepting the stress and distress of this life

Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the road is easy[a] that leads to destruction, and there are many who take it. For the gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life, and there are few who find it.

Matthew 7:13-14; NRSV

I’m reading Job from The Message right now which I take as more than an intriguing wisdom story, certainly a book chalk full of wisdom, but mostly in terms of the main points that come across, notwithstanding some of the striking details. I’m reminded of the thought that instead of life getting easier when one comes to Christ, it actually becomes more difficult. Why? Well we can surely say we’re going against the grain of the world, the flesh, and the devil. And central to it is simply the reality that believers are also followers of Christ, or else our faith may well be spurious. Following Christ means identity with him in this world, taking up our cross, as we seek to live out the King Jesus, kingdom of God life. Certainly a salvation story, but a salvation not in terms of simply securing one’s eternal life, but a salvation steeped in the values of God’s kingdom, inside and out.

We need to accept the stress and distress of this way in Jesus. That is half the battle, the Lord helping us to do that. God will be with us through the rest. We just need to settle into the mentality that we’ll have problems others won’t. As we seek to follow. In and through Jesus.

what John “the elder” and beloved apostle of our Lord might say to us now from 1 John 2:15-17

Do not love the world or anything in the world. If anyone loves the world, love for the Father is not in them. For everything in the world—the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life—comes not from the Father but from the world. The world and its desires pass away, but whoever does the will of God lives forever.

1 John 2:15-17

Don’t love the world’s ways. Don’t love the world’s goods. Love of the world squeezes out love for the Father. Practically everything that goes on in the world—wanting your own way, wanting everything for yourself, wanting to appear important—has nothing to do with the Father. It just isolates you from him. The world and all its wanting, wanting, wanting is on the way out—but whoever does what God wants is set for eternity.

1 John 2:15-17; MSG

John would likely warn us in no uncertain terms that to play by the world’s ways is opposite and in fact in opposition to following Jesus. And that it shouldn’t be about our wanting, but about doing God’s will. This can be especially poignant when considering the political sphere. What are Christians advocating for and why? All of that needs to be examined in the light of Christ, who he is and his coming. Of course also what he has done and what that means for us both in terms of believing and doing.

When John is speaking of the world here, he is referring to the world system, the ways of the world. John describes what he means: “the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes,…the pride of life.” It’s centered around us, what we/I want, self-centered. It’s not about loving God, or loving our neighbor as ourselves.

John might tell us that Christians ought to advocate for others, be present for others, and not be concerned about ourselves. To seek to live in God’s will which would involve seeking the good of all, and the good of God’s good world. And that both God’s special revelation given to us in Scripture and the gospel, and God’s general revelation in creation worked out in some fashion in science and in other ways should be front and center in this.

We accept the good gifts and abilities God has given us and humankind, while we reject all that which is opposed to God’s will. But that rejection only in the way of Jesus, mostly in terms of what we actually accept and are all about: God’s grace and kingdom come and present in and through Jesus.

in the hard, harsh world

After Jesus was born in Bethlehem village, Judah territory— this was during Herod’s kingship—a band of scholars arrived in Jerusalem from the East. They asked around, “Where can we find and pay homage to the newborn King of the Jews? We observed a star in the eastern sky that signaled his birth. We’re on pilgrimage to worship him.”

When word of their inquiry got to Herod, he was terrified—and not Herod alone, but most of Jerusalem as well. Herod lost no time. He gathered all the high priests and religion scholars in the city together and asked, “Where is the Messiah supposed to be born?”

They told him, “Bethlehem, Judah territory. The prophet Micah wrote it plainly:

It’s you, Bethlehem, in Judah’s land,
no longer bringing up the rear.
From you will come the leader
who will shepherd-rule my people, my Israel.”

Herod then arranged a secret meeting with the scholars from the East. Pretending to be as devout as they were, he got them to tell him exactly when the birth-announcement star appeared. Then he told them the prophecy about Bethlehem, and said, “Go find this child. Leave no stone unturned. As soon as you find him, send word and I’ll join you at once in your worship.”

Instructed by the king, they set off. Then the star appeared again, the same star they had seen in the eastern skies. It led them on until it hovered over the place of the child. They could hardly contain themselves: They were in the right place! They had arrived at the right time!

They entered the house and saw the child in the arms of Mary, his mother. Overcome, they kneeled and worshiped him. Then they opened their luggage and presented gifts: gold, frankincense, myrrh.

In a dream, they were warned not to report back to Herod. So they worked out another route, left the territory without being seen, and returned to their own country.

After the scholars were gone, God’s angel showed up again in Joseph’s dream and commanded, “Get up. Take the child and his mother and flee to Egypt. Stay until further notice. Herod is on the hunt for this child, and wants to kill him.”

Joseph obeyed. He got up, took the child and his mother under cover of darkness. They were out of town and well on their way by daylight. They lived in Egypt until Herod’s death. This Egyptian exile fulfilled what Hosea had preached: “I called my son out of Egypt.”

Herod, when he realized that the scholars had tricked him, flew into a rage. He commanded the murder of every little boy two years old and under who lived in Bethlehem and its surrounding hills. (He determined that age from information he’d gotten from the scholars.) That’s when Jeremiah’s sermon was fulfilled:

A sound was heard in Ramah,
weeping and much lament.
Rachel weeping for her children,
Rachel refusing all solace,
Her children gone,
dead and buried.

Later, when Herod died, God’s angel appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt: “Up, take the child and his mother and return to Israel. All those out to murder the child are dead.”

Joseph obeyed. He got up, took the child and his mother, and reentered Israel. When he heard, though, that Archelaus had succeeded his father, Herod, as king in Judea, he was afraid to go there. But then Joseph was directed in a dream to go to the hills of Galilee. On arrival, he settled in the village of Nazareth. This move was a fulfillment of the prophetic words, “He shall be called a Nazarene.”

Matthew 2:1-23; MSG

Christmas Day as we celebrate it with all its festivities, opening of presents, and especially remembering the birth of Jesus, is a downright magical day. Good Friday and Easter might be the most important holy days and week in the Christian calendar, but without Christmas, and the Incarnation, there would be no Holy Week. But Christmas does have a unique charm all its own. We marvel at the mystery of God becoming flesh, and the wondrous story of a teenage girl who is told by an angel that she would become pregnant apart from a man. All the wonderful words and events which surround that. There’s nothing like it.

But in our world, and in that world at that time, after the shepherds came from the wonderful angelic visitation and announcement they had witnessed, it wasn’t long until harsh reality set in. More than a year had likely passed, so that evidently we might conjecture that Joseph was willing to settle down in that area, at least for the time being, but an unsettling would soon come. King Herod could brook no rivals, and any would be Messiah would not last in his kingdom. But Herod was not reckoning with what he was used to. Instead he was up against God and God’s kingdom.

We read in the above Scripture all that happened. The wise men, astrologers, astronomers, scholars, whatever they were called (even “kings” in Christian tradition) travel a long way guided by some astrological phenomena along with a cursory knowledge of Hebrew Scripture or the story of a coming ruler in them, and you have the unfolding of another part of what has become the Christmas Story. But there’s a quick and sudden descent into the darkness of that time as King Herod catches wind of what’s happening. An angel ends up warning Joseph who takes the “holy family” to Egypt for a time, before being led back to Nazareth, away from Bethlehem.

We’re reminded of our own time. Many of us were able to enjoy Christmas as the special day it has become. But now we have to face the real world where we live, the pandemic that is bursting from the seams once again before hopefully the vaccines can kick in and give the world something of an immunity against this virus. And all the turmoil surrounding it.

How to live during such times is another subject entirely, but the point here is that there’s no escape from the world in which we live, a world with a system that is opposed to the kingdom God brings in Jesus. But a world also that is redeemed in and through our blessed and wonderful King Jesus. Amen.

losing one’s focus (and one’s mind)

Then he called the crowd to him along with his disciples and said: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life[a] will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it. What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul? If anyone is ashamed of me and my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, the Son of Man will be ashamed of them when he comes in his Father’s glory with the holy angels.”

Mark 8:34-38

The call to follow Jesus is singularly one of focus and then acting accordingly. Certainly within the entire picture is all of Scripture, sorting out what is Jesus-like and in accord with the fulfillment Jesus brought from that which is not. Just because some person of God did something in Scripture does not make it right, or at least not right for us today. Remember Elijah calling down fire from heaven, and Jesus rebuking his disciples for wanting to do the same?

How Jesus’s words to his disciples during that time translate into our day is no small order, though I think there’s surely some direct corollary. We don’t have crosses now, but we must embrace the path of suffering for following Christ, and not just in some kind of western religious, salvation kind of way where nowadays so much about that at least expressed is about religious freedom. No, the way of Jesus can often strike right in the face of religious leaders, and certainly runs against the grain of the world’s way of thinking and action. Might doesn’t make right in God’s kingdom in King Jesus, nor lording it over others. Sacrificial, even suffering servant love wins the day in God’s eyes.

I have to ask when I see the mess today: “Are we losing our collective minds?” It’s so easy for us to lose our focus. And then go off on all sorts of directions other than where the Lord is going.

If we’re going to be true followers of Jesus, we need to learn to put first things first, get back to basics in what we’re focusing on, thinking about, and then practicing. It’s a matter of unswerving devotion to Christ, nothing else having that same place. It is also about being changed by the renewing of our minds so that we do not live in the ways of the world. We are called to follow Christ with the difference God’s kingdom brings- into our world, into all the world. In and through Jesus.

back to basics

Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. After fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry. The tempter came to him and said, “If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread.”

Jesus answered, “It is written: ‘Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.’”

Matthew 4:1-4

Over and over again I have to remind myself of what I regularly do, or want to do. That’s be in Scripture. Just doing that makes a world of difference for me.

After his baptism with the experience of the Spirit coming down on him like a dove, and a voice from heaven saying that he was God’s much loved Son, Jesus was driven out into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. This world is like the wilderness to us, and the devil does indeed tempt us. Yes, Jesus meets this temptation in a sense to shield us from the worst of what the tempter can do through the cross and the good news that brings. But also as our example. When you click the above link you’ll see that Jesus meets each of the tempter’s suggestions with Scripture. Jesus was little known until that time. Almost thirty years in relative seclusion, surely taking in daily Scripture. Exactly what we need to do day in and day out. 

We need to keep seeking out God’s wisdom, listening to God’s voice, looking for God’s transformation of our lives over time. The needed change will occur as we seek to become and remain grounded in Scripture, especially in the gospel we find in it, the main point of it. Along with all the wisdom we find. In and through Jesus.

don’t shun the process

Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.

Romans 12:2

We modern people don’t like process. People of first world nations often either have everything at their fingertips, or can get everything else in a day or two or three. Instant access. Anything that takes any especially considerable length of time is a conundrum to us. It’s just something which doesn’t register into our consideration.

And the triumphalism found in some churches plays right into this. We can meet God now, have it now. Why the struggle? Get slain in the Spirit or whatever, and you can go on, a new person. It’s not like unusual experiences might not be helpful in one way or another. But by and large it’s the process that we as followers of Jesus should be after.

Paul in the above passage was not referring to something that happens overnight. Becoming conformed to the pattern of this world takes time. It’s incremental but more and more complete as we imbibe the spirit and attitude of the world, almost like breathing the air and taking in what might be both healthy and that which is definitely toxic, not really requiring effort at all.

Instead we as followers of Jesus are to be changing by the renewing of our minds. That does require active participation on our part. The renewing of our minds by more and more understanding God’s will for us, not only in our heads, but in our lives, down to earth right where we live. This is not just a one time command or directive, but ongoing. Day after day after day, the rest of our lives. That we might increasingly know and settle into God’s good will for us. In and through Jesus.

Christ’s victory in the world’s eyes

Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength.

1 Corinthians 22-25

What if Jesus were present today? What if he showed up in today’s world in a rerun of his first appearing? What if he came for the first time into today’s setting? Would things be different? Would he be well received by the world elites- governing and even religious?

Back when Jesus did come, the cross was the means and method of execution. Only enemies of the state were executed. Jesus ended up being counted as an enemy of the state. Why?

Well, to begin with, what Jesus did flew right in the face of the Jewish ruling authorities who were religious and wanted nothing more than God to come and remove the Romans and fulfill the promises they had long awaited. Jesus comes and proclaims repentance from their way of thinking along with the kingdom of God. Not only contradictory to what they anticipated, but actually in opposition to it. If a Roman soldier asks you to carry his baggage one mile, do it for two miles. Love your enemies, bless those who curse you, pray for those who persecute you.

And then Jesus’s modus operandi: He not only spent time with the lowlifes, but even seemed to enjoy their company. Completely scandalous. And Jesus broke all the rules. He paid no attention to cleansing laws. What on earth was he up to?!?

Even though Pilate wasn’t on board with the Jewish leaders in their determination to put an end to what Jesus was about, it wasn’t long before he and the Jewish ruler in a kind of monarch position, Herod, previously enemies, had actually become friends. Why? Well possibly because of their incredulity over this Jesus. Not because of the hate directed toward him by the leaders of Israel, but simply because Jesus was not only a puzzle to them, but someone not to be taken seriously at all, in fact maybe even a threat since what Jesus seemed to be proposing as king with a kingdom was indeed preposterous to the world, and maybe even a danger of some sort that they would do well to get rid of. After all, you can’t run a nation or empire that way. Maybe somehow someway this even got under their skin a bit, even if they didn’t take it all that seriously. An enigma for sure. Of course Jesus’s way did indeed press the buttons of the religious elite.

Would it be any different today? Though it’s a different setting, the core or heart remains the same. To some extent even the church has taken on the spirit and attitude of the state, of governing authorities. Power is valued in terms of force and might. The cross is not about a way of life, but for one’s salvation so they can get on with the normal pattern here on earth with their ticket for what follows afterward in the next life.

So no, I don’t think by and large Jesus would be treated any differently today. In fact I don’t think he would be recognized as Jesus at all by many, even by those who today name his name. The question would be, do they have his spirit? If indeed they do have the Spirit, then, even with much difficulty, they would come to recognize him. But do we have his Spirit when we follow the pattern of this age, and fall in line with that? That in itself is not of the Spirit, but of the world, the flesh and the devil.

What is different about your faith in Christ? Is it just a matter of living a better life, even of love, yet within the system of this world, as a participant in that? Even imagining that with effort and the right people in place, the system can be Christianized? Or is it in the way of Jesus? A way which makes no sense to the world. Refusing to participate in the world’s way of power, but embracing the power of God’s love in a world of hate. Following in the way of Jesus. Not just about preaching the cross, but also about living it out. In love, the God who is love. In and through Jesus.