rooting out bitterness

Make every effort to live in peace with everyone and to be holy; without holiness no one will see the Lord. See to it that no one falls short of the grace of God and that no bitter root grows up to cause trouble and defile many.

Hebrews 12

We have all been hurt, sometimes in life-altering ways. And too often in ways we learn to live with in not such a good way. I think of those molested in childhood, others who have suffered physical or emotional abuse. Words inflict injury as well. James tells us that the tongue is a world of evil. Like a serpent, full of deadly poison (James 3). We carry around with us wounds, which hopefully are largely healed, or in the process of healing. But if not, can perpetuate a cycle of harm. “Hurt people hurt people.”

Oftentimes it seems that this root called bitterness plays out in people finding something wrong, something amiss and off, quick to judge others. And even when such judgments might be either largely or partially true, there is a poison in the air, which inflicts those around them. I think of what should be called gossip, or perhaps better, not putting the best construction on what’s being said or done. And unless we refuse to participate in such, we are taken in, and the problem can grow. It is sad when we can see that is where some people live. And yet we can have more of that in ourselves than we might imagine.

The text above tells us not just to look after ourselves, although that is surely where it must start. But we in Jesus, in the church need to look out for each other, as well. That means we have to guard our tongues to be sure, and work at guarding our hearts. We have to love others, including those who seem on a one track existence due to their bitterness. We all need help along the way, sometimes special help. The goal would be to root out the bitterness, get rid of that poisonous root. Otherwise it is sure to defile others, perhaps many.

Basics like prayer and loving counsel and repentance, and continuing to work against this, seem to be essential. And what is needed in all of this is an emphasis on grace (again, note the text above), no less than an air of grace in which we are careful to consider our actions, words, and what underlies that, our thoughts and attitudes. There is no other way of together following the way of Jesus.

 

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encouragment to keep on keeping on

Therefore, my dear brothers and sisters, stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain.

1 Corinthians 15

For many reasons, it’s easy to want to give up at times, to throw in the towel. There is often so much pressure, and so much that could go wrong, and at times does go wrong. And we live in a world in which evil too often gets the upper hand and seems successful, and in which there’s little good that doesn’t have some admixture of evil. And if we honestly look at ourselves, we have to admit that we’re far from perfect, flawed and definitely not all together. We most certainly haven’t arrived. And all too often it can feel like our wheels are spinning.

But then we turn to scripture, and specifically to the great resurrection gospel passage in 1 Corinthians 15. The conclusion of it, quoted above suggests that it is meant to be an encouragement, as well as careful instruction during a formative time in the faith once for all entrusted to God’s people. Because of Christ’s death for our sins, and resurrection from the dead, we are given assurance that somehow what we do here and now in this present state matters. That it has effects beyond what is apparent, what the eye can see.

So the resurrection to come in and through Christ is not ony something we look forward to as a present day hope for the future, but also is meant to impact our lives in the present, that not only are we now living in the resurrection power by the Spirit, even while still in our mortal existence, but that this promise gives lasting significance to what we do in the here and now.

If this wasn’t the case, then it would most certainly seem indeed that “all we are is dust in the wind.” But God has promised to bring that dust back together beyond this mortality into immortality. And somehow with that, our works which proceed out of faith, as well.

And so that gives me pause, to not only want to do well, but to also avoid doing poorly. A straight arrow to us that what we do, our work matters. Both in our words and deeds. As we look forward to the time when all of our labor in the Lord comes together to be shown that it was not in vain, and we continue on in the love, goodness, grace, and indeed the life of our risen, resurrected Lord.

faith because of the faithfulness of Christ

In Paul’s letters, there are a number of places in which the literal translation would be “the faithfulness of Christ” as being front and center for our salvation. Of course our faith is factored into that, but our faith is not central. Oftentimes it is translated “faith in Christ,” which still puts Christ as the object of faith, but also emphasizes our faith. And there’s no doubt that there is an emphasis on human faith, such as in the case of Abraham in Romans 4. And that our faith is contrasted to our works, and specifically to the works of the Law. So that grace is grace only if it is by faith and not by works, I think not so much with regard to human effort, but more in terms of adherence to the Law of Moses. It’s a bit complicated, but even in that case in Romans 4, I think Paul is simply trying to show that it is faith in God’s word, and specifically in the gospel which justifies or brings salvation, and to think that works of the Law enter in, is to bring in a category which is actually as foreign to the First/Old Testament, as it is to the Final/New Testament. Abraham was justified by faith apart from the works of the Law, and before he was circumcised. The boasting Paul says is to be rejected is not really about one’s own effort, and not even a smidgen about some supposed moral perfection, even if Paul uses the latter to point out that those who emphasize Law/Torah keeping must not break any of it to remain in the clear with God. The boasting by the Jew would be in the Torah itself, and the fact that they possessed and sought to live by that Torah/Law.

But to the main point of this post. The faithfulness of Christ in his coming, life, and especially in his death, followed by God’s vindication in his resurrection from the dead, then his ascension to the supreme place of authority at God’s right hand, with the promise of his return when the final judgment and salvation come and in that, the new creation, is what our focus should be on. Not our own faith, but on the faithfulness of Christ. It is far better to have a small faith in a great object, instead of a large faith in a small object. The focus must not be on our own faith, but on the faithfulness of God in Christ, yes, on the faithfulness of Christ. That is the focus in which our faith can be established and grow.

Advent and John’s baptism

John said to the crowds coming out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham. The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.”

“What should we do then?” the crowd asked.

John answered, “Anyone who has two shirts should share with the one who has none, and anyone who has food should do the same.”

Even tax collectors came to be baptized. “Teacher,” they asked, “what should we do?”

“Don’t collect any more than you are required to,” he told them.

Then some soldiers asked him, “And what should we do?”

He replied, “Don’t extort money and don’t accuse people falsely—be content with your pay.”

The people were waiting expectantly and were all wondering in their hearts if John might possibly be the Messiah. John answered them all, “I baptize you with[a] water. But one who is more powerful than I will come, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with[b] the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his barn, but he will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.” And with many other words John exhorted the people and proclaimed the good news to them.

Luke 3:7-18

Jesus’ cousin John, for good reason is called John the Baptist (or Baptizer). His ministry was to prepare the way for the Lord in getting the people of Israel ready for the coming of the Messiah-King. It was certainly a message of repentance along with the warning of judgment to come. And of great promise in that while John baptized the people with water, Jesus would baptize them with the Holy Spirit. Something unprecedented was to happen to the people of Israel at large. But they’d better be ready. Baptism with fire awaited those who would not be ready.

John preached the gospel to them, which simply means good news, which is Jesus, and God’s good will in him, that good news unfolding as we read on in the gospel accounts (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John), and further explained in its outworking in the rest of the New Testament.

The people in preparation for the coming of the Messiah were not only to submit to John’s baptism of repentance by confessing their sins and being baptized by him in the Jordan River. They were also to change their ways, to do and not do certain things which John spells out clearly for them in this passage in answer to their question. Works play an important role in our preparation for the coming of King Jesus. It’s not enough to repent as in merely expressing remorse and regret over our sins. We have to change our behavior, which means we must do as well as not do certain things. Scripture is clear concerning that. We can’t just wait for some change of heart before we change our ways. Somehow both are simultaneous in God’s working. A change of heart with no corresponding change of life is no change at all.

And so John the Baptist’s ministry is an important reminder to us of the necessity of preparing ourselves for the Lord’s coming. We want to be ready when he is appears, to be in sync with God’s good will in him, something that has begun even now through his first coming, which we soon are to celebrate.

 

“I know your works”

In reading Jesus’ letters to the seven churches in the Revelation, it has struck me once again, the place and indeed emphasis given to works (Revelation 2-3). There is no faith where there are no works.

It is true that a living faith is dependent on God and his underlying grace. Without grace, faith and the works that follow are impossible (Ephesians 2:8-10). At the same time we don’t do well in our theology and pastoral speak to not reflect all that scripture actually says. It is true at times that we may have to emphasize this or that to get a church or individual more on the mark. But the mark in the end is determined by the Spirit’s help to the church in the church’s reading and understanding of the sacred text, of God’s written word, scripture itself. Of course the gospel and its outworking being central in that. We have to keep going back to scripture again and again to measure our understanding as well as our practice of the faith.

Jesus seems to measure us both by what we do and fail to do. Works come from the heart. It’s never a matter of simply doing as well as avoiding this and that- lists, even those we find in scripture. It includes something of that and more. God sees our hearts, yes, his word penetrates there (Hebrews 4:12-13). What we need is a change of heart no less, before our works will by grace become more what they ought to be, even worthy in some measure in and through Jesus.

So we need to be in scripture and keep reading and listening, both as individuals and as the community of faith, the church. As we seek to live well as those who would love God fully and our neighbor as ourselves.

doers of the word

Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says.

Yesterday the president of RBC Ministries (home of Our Daily Bread and much more), Rick DeHaan, shared with us the importance of asking ourselves the question if we who are engaged in the ministry’s mission to “make the life-changing wisdom of the Bible understandable and accessible to all” are being impacted by God and his word in that way ourselves. A good question and meditation.

We Christians have a history of being creedal, of holding to certain things as true. Sometimes, and I’m afraid all too often we are left with the mindset that as long as we believe it, we’re good.

James (quoted above) has a different mindset, a Jewish one, which while not throwing out correct belief, regards such as worthless unless such belief is followed through with corresponding action. Much of scripture is didactic as in instructive, but it certainly doesn’t stop there. It is prescriptive as well even to the point of offering imperatives/commands both positive and negative (dos and don’ts).

I am one who likes to be in the word a lot. Both in concentrated times and incrementally throughout the day. I think a big part of the reason I do that is because I’m wired to want to learn and teach. We’re all wired differently so that we will naturally approach things differently as well. In my case I can see how I need all the more to be on guard lest I deceive myself. I can easily assume that knowledge is enough. But according to scripture we are held accountable for what we know, the knowledge we have. We deceive ourselves if we think that simply knowing what God’s written word says is enough. Through God’s grace by repentance and faith we need to see our lives lining up more and more with it. We certainly won’t arrive to perfection in this life, there will always be sin we need to confess. But no stone should be left unturned, no hidden place left in the dark, as we continue day to day in God’s word. In our lives individually and together as God’s people in and through Jesus.

to excel

I wonder why anyone should accept mediocrity in anything, of course I’m thinking in terms of any legitimate thing in this life. From serving coffee to being a CEO. Or more in my thinking (and experience, in reverse order) from working in a factory to teaching in a university. Whatever it might be and that includes fun, we’re to be doing all to the glory of God. Of course to do one thing will often end up excluding other possibilities. And some places and jobs may be good stepping stones but not stopping places for us.

What is not necessarily prideful is to be applying one’s self to whatever task is at hand with heart, mind and body fully engaged. Not in a get by mode, but with one’s whole being and effort. And hopefully not out of some psychological bent such as the fear of failure. But God can turn even such propensities in us to the joy and freedom of service to him.

To excel in what we do is one thing, and that is indeed important. After all we humans are image bearers of God and that involves representing him on the earth by what we do no less. As stewards and caretakers of earth and all that is a part of that. But just as important for us if not more so in some ways is the heart and attitude we carry behind all such works. Some might want to deemphasize work to the point that it seems meaningless (the writer of Ecclesiastes who apart from God sees all life under the sun as meaningless and a chasing after the wind). Our work remains important. But if our heart does not correspond with love to God and to our neighbor (even to our enemies) in all we do then even the best effort we put forth which might seem successful will be worthless in God’s eyes.

We need to want to excel in a godly, holy love. Not with a legalistic, checking off a list sort of mentality, but being full of life in the life of the Spirit. Paul points us to excelling in this way:

Now about your love for one another we do not need to write to you, for you yourselves have been taught by God to love each other. And in fact, you do love all of God’s family throughout Macedonia. Yet we urge you, brothers and sisters, to do so more and more, and to make it your ambition to lead a quiet life: You should mind your own business and work with your hands, just as we told you, so that your daily life may win the respect of outsiders and so that you will not be dependent on anybody.

We must beware though of the thinking we need to excel in everything. In some things I’m nearly all thumbs while in other things I can do well. This is more along the line of whatever we end up doing to learn to do it well, the best we can. And to do so with a character that is being more and more conformed to the image of Christ. So that our lives are both in service to and in community with others.

And so we go on. Humbly in all our weakness endeavoring to do well in God’s eyes in everything, perhaps even in human eyes as well even though we never do what we do simply to please humans. We want always to be those who would please God in everything in and through Jesus.