Bad news… good news…

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Nahum 1:2 A jealous and avenging God is the LORD, the LORD is avenging and wrathful; the LORD takes vengeance on his adversaries and rages against his enemies. 3 The LORD is slow to anger but great in power, and the LORD will by no means clear the guilty.

Here the prophet Nahum describes God in stark, scary terms. God is “avenging and wrathful” who “will by no means clear the guilty”. In other words, while God may be merciful, God is also just. That means sin must be punished. Since we are all sinners, this is bad news.

Then in Revelation we get a different picture:

Revelation 14:12 Here is a call for the endurance of the saints, those who keep the commandments of God and hold fast to the faith of Jesus. 13 And I heard a voice from heaven saying, “Write this: Blessed are the dead who from now on die in the Lord.” “Yes,” says the Spirit, “they will rest from their labors, for their deeds follow them.” 

In the time Revelation was written there was much persecution happening toward Christians. People were imprisoned and even put to death for their faith. Here the writer offers a word of encouragement to those suffering for the name of Jesus. The “saints” (v.12) are not simply forgotten, and their sacrifices with them. Their “deeds follow them”. They, and their good deeds, are remembered in the life to come. How different than the Nahum passage, right?

The wonderful thing to consider is that these saints mentioned in Revelation were as we are – flawed, broken, sinful. They weren’t saints because of their perfection in the Lord, but because they had been redeemed and claimed as children of God through Christ Jesus. It is by grace that they have been saved, as is true of you and me.

Their sins and mistakes were forgiven and forgotten – while their acts of sacrifice for the gospel “follow them” into eternal life. As I think about my life I remember so many mistakes and struggles and acts against the will of God. They are too many to possibly number. If all these were counted against me I would be utterly without hope. I expect the same is true of you.

And yet by the grace of God in Christ Jesus we have hope. Our sin, confessed and laid bare before the Lord, is forgiven and remembered no more. We are made clean in the blood of Jesus. Thanks be to God! Amen.

 

 

The point of animal sacrifices…

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Micah 6: 6 “With what shall I come before the LORD,  and bow myself before God on high? Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? 7 Will the LORD be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousands of rivers of oil? Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?” 8 He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?

This is a fairly well-know passage of scripture. It speaks to the same basic issue I mentioned a couple of days ago, but here it is again. Apparently it deeply troubles God when people make offerings and sacrifices and perform other forms of worship/piety – yet remain fundamentally unchanged on the inside.

Sacrifices were intended to be an act of submission to the Lord God. I mean, killing a perfectly good animal doesn’t make much sense from a logical standpoint. And God most certainly doesn’t need dead animals. But returning some of what the Lord gave to people in the first place indicates a trust in the Lord, in his provision. And the hope is that the heart of the giver comes more in more into alignment with the heart of God – who cares deeply about the poor and dispossessed, the ones who are preyed upon by those with privilege and power.

The question I’m asking myself today is, “Is my heart changing as a consequence of my worship?”

Lord let it be so. Amen.

Jonah and the people of Nineveh…

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Jonah 3:1 The word of the LORD came to Jonah a second time, saying, 2 “Get up, go to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim to it the message that I tell you.”… 4 Jonah began to go into the city, going a day’s walk. And he cried out, “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” 5 And the people of Nineveh believed God; they proclaimed a fast, and everyone, great and small, put on sackcloth… 10 When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them; and he did not do it. 4 But this was very displeasing to Jonah, and he became angry. 2 He prayed to the LORD and said, “O LORD! Is not this what I said while I was still in my own country? That is why I fled to Tarshish (by ship) at the beginning; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing. 3 And now, O LORD, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live.”

God sent Jonah to speak to the people of Nineveh so they might repent of their evil ways and be saved. Jonah didn’t like that idea because, in his estimation, the people of Nineveh were unworthy of God’s grace. So Jonah fled by ship in the opposite direction of Nineveh, trying to run from God. Didn’t work. Jonah ended up tossed overboard in a storm, but God saved him by commanding a fish to swallow him. You can see at the beginning of today’s passage that Jonah finally relented and went to Nineveh.

The good news is that the people of Nineveh did exactly as God had hoped – they repented of their sinful ways and were spared God’s wrath. The bad news is that Jonah didn’t want the Ninevites to be saved. They were “bad” people deserving to die! Interestingly, it’s Jonah (the prophet of God) who comes off as hard-hearted while the “wicked” people of Nineveh demonstrate the more faithful response to God.

The bible has many stories in which the ones expected to be “good” have hard hearts while the “bad” people repent and turn toward the Lord. 

Who is right and who is wrong? The bible challenges many of our assumptions in this regard. It’s not always the person who appears to do the right things. It’s more about one’s heart. Who is proud and self-righteous? Who is humble, recognizing their brokenness before God? This morning I’m wondering if I’m more like Jonah or the people of Nineveh? What about you?

Lord give us contrite hearts that might humbly seek your mercy and grace each and every day. Amen.

Work or worship?

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Psalm 141:1 I call upon you, O LORD; come quickly to me; give ear to my voice when I call to you. 2 Let my prayer be counted as incense before you, and the lifting up of my hands as an evening sacrifice.

What strikes me is the contrast of these words with other scripture passages in which God chastises the people for making animal sacrifices and burning incense – while continuing to oppress the poor and worship idols. God recognizes rote piety without repentance as empty gestures. These verses of Psalm 141 can be construed as the opposite. There are no actual animals or incense being offered, only desperate prayers and outreached hands.

As a pastor I spend more time than most people doing church stuff, including acts of worship, prayer, reading and reflecting, serving, and so on. I’ll admit there are days when it’s probably more rote than intentional – a habit. But then there are times when, like the psalmist in this passage, I seek the Lord from a posture of heart-felt humility.

We are in the season of Advent leading up to Christmas. Lots of church stuff going on. There is temptation for people like me, who have church-oriented jobs, to experience worship as “work” – like when others of you have a work-oriented project to complete, or a meeting to lead, or a sale to close, or file to complete. It’s easy for people like me to lose the worshipfulness of worship. That’s my prayer today, that I won’t get lost in the “work” of worship. Lord, let it be so. Amen.

 

A war of words…

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Psalm 140:1 Deliver me, O LORD, from evildoers; protect me from those who are violent, 2 who plan evil things in their minds and stir up wars continually. 3 They make their tongue sharp as a snake’s, and under their lips is the venom of vipers.

Here the psalmist is asking for protection from God from “evildoers”. The writer then points out a number of things that evildoers do. The end of verse 2 and verse 3 describe those who “stir up wars continually”… with words. Here’s what that looks like in my experience.

Such people are generally argumentative. They challenge everything, often when it’s unnecessary or for no apparent reason. They have a gift for language, but use words as weapons to curse rather than to bless. Their criticisms are personal and belittling rather than constructive. They whisper into peoples’ ears accusing the innocent and/or deflecting attention away from their own transgressions. They prey on vulnerable people, pretending to be their friend while taking advantage.

You can find such people at work, at school, in your neighborhood, even at home. You may be thinking of someone in particular right now. This is the sort of person from whom the psalmist is asking for divine protection. We should do the same.

Heavenly Father, this morning we echo the words of the psalmist. Deliver us from “evildoers” and give us grace that we might never be the offender. We pray this in Jesus’ name. Amen.

 

The tax overhaul and the poor…

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Amos 5: 11 Therefore because you trample on the poor and take from them levies of grain… and push aside the needy in the gate…

According to God, one of the key indicators of the faithfulness of Israel is their treatment of the poor and dispossessed. In this verse God is calling the people to task. Yes they worship in the temple, make the appointed sacrifices, tithe their income… but their treatment of the poor is an embarrassment.

As I write this blog post Congress is in the middle of a major overhaul of the federal tax code. We are talking about a piece of legislation that will determine who gets to pay for our $4.094 trillion budget. (Hint: regular people like you and me will bear the brunt)

What concerns me is the way this legislation is bring written and carried through Congress. Very few people know what’s actually in the document and, to be frank, most won’t know until the legislation is passed (this is nothing new, by the way). Some lawmakers may have comments ahead of the vote, but so much of what they say is partisan spin it’s hard to take any of it seriously. Republicans will hail the bill as a major achievement while the democrats will say it’s the worst bill ever written. The truth will likely be somewhere in between.

Here’s one thing I do know – the ones with the most influence are monied interests (wealthy persons, big business, big government) who can afford expensive lobbyists to represent their interests during the writing process. The rest of us have little leverage until there’s an election when we can be heard at the ballot box. The poor have almost no leverage because so few vote. They are usually the ones who get the shaft.

My prayer is that, by some miracle, the tax overhaul creates a system of taxation that is more equitable, not less. I know – crazy idea.

Lord Jesus let it be so. Amen.

You are “fearfully and wonderfully made”…

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Psalm 139: 13 For it was you who formed my inward parts; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. 14 I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are your works; that I know very well. 

This is such a poignant passage from the psalms. The writer gives us an image of God creating people, “You knit me together”. This is not God speaking a word and – poof – there’s a person. Creation is not described here as an instantaneous event, but a careful process. God is One methodically knitting a person together, stitch by stitch, part by part. It’s an image that mirrors the slow process of gestation of a child in the womb. It is slow. Methodical. Thoughtful. Purposeful. Providential.

As many of you well know, this time of year is hard for many people. It can serve as a reminder of mistakes and regrets which often cannot be undone. I was talking to a person recently who described herself as a “screwup”. In her eyes she’s made a mess of her life. She believes God screwed up when creating her. Now, I understand the pain of regret because we all have them; things we wish we could go back and do differently. But that last part is something with which I take issue.

God does not create mistakes.

It’s true we may not yet be living into God’s dream for us. We may have gone off the rails a bit in life, gotten lost in the weeds. But receive these words from the psalmist. You are… “fearfully and wonderfully made”. That’s you dear brother/sister. It is God’s word for you today. It is the truth. Receive it in your heart, mind, and spirit.

Lord, let it be so. Amen.