Lord forgive us our sins that we may be healed…

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James 5:15 The prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise them up; and anyone who has committed sins will be forgiven. 16 Therefore confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, so that you may be healed.

James provides an interesting connection between healing and forgiveness of sins. Jesus does the same thing in Matthew 9:2-7 – offering forgiveness of sins to a paralyzed man and then healing him. That said I don’t think it’s correct to assume that everyone who is ill must be so as a consequence of their own sin. Mortality is present among the forgiven as it is for everyone else. Nevertheless, the connection is interesting. Lord forgive us our sins that we may be healed. Amen.

“…the coming of the Lord is near”…

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James 5:Be patient, therefore, beloved, until the coming of the Lord. The farmer waits for the precious crop from the earth, being patient with it until it receives the early and the late rains. You also must be patient. Strengthen your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is near. Beloved, do not grumble against one another, so that you may not be judged. See, the Judge is standing at the doors!

The apostle James is writing to a Christian community that is suffering from persecution. As such he’s trying in this letter to both encourage the believers to carry on and give them hope their suffering won’t last. “Strengthen your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is near.” We see a similar theme through some of the letters of the apostle Paul in which he implies the Lord is coming – any day now.

I understand the impulse to tell people the end of their hardship is just around the corner. But of course we know the Lord did not return quickly as expected. 2,000 years later we are still waiting. Interestingly in some of Paul’s later letters you can discern a shift in his expectations. It would seem Paul eventually realized that Jesus was NOT coming very soon, or even in their lifetimes.

In a similar vein, I think most of us expected our Covid problem to be temporary, over in a few weeks or months. We now realize this is not the case. While some things may go back to what they were, many will not. And it’s not always easy to discern which is what. However, as was true of the Christians receiving this letter from James, we know that our Lord walks with us every step of the way – no matter what our future brings.

Lord as we navigate an uncertain future give us grace to persevere in the faith. Amen.

Turn my eyes from looking at vanities…

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Psalm 119: 36 Turn my heart to your decrees, and not to selfish gain. 37 Turn my eyes from looking at vanities; give me life in your ways.

As I mentioned in yesterday’s blog post, the writer is in some trouble and is here expressing complete dependence on God to intervene. I was struck by the word “vanities” in v.37. Vanities refers to things that don’t matter or are inconsequential. A waste of time. Turning from such things makes perfect sense and yet is easier said than done.

I say this because it’s not always obvious at a given moment what things are vanities and what are not. I can recall a number of conversations I’ve had with people who, at the end of life, realized they had spent years and years on vanities – often work-related stuff. They chose things related to work instead of time with loved ones, or with God, or other priorities. Priorities can get confused in the day-to-day press of time. I know I’ve made mistakes of this kind many times.

Truth is, we made judgments in this area every day and hope we get it right. Sometimes we do, sometimes we don’t. So this morning I’m praying along with the psalmist. Turn my eyes from looking on vanities; give me life in your ways O God. Amen.

Teach me to “delight” in your commandments…

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Psalm 119: 33 Teach me, O Lord, the way of your statutes, and I will observe it to the end. 34 Give me understanding, that I may keep your law and observe it with my whole heart. 35 Lead me in the path of your commandments, for I delight in it. 

This morning I’m struck by the word “delight” in v.35. When I think about the law (the commandments and other ordinances of God in scripture) the words that describe my experience of them would be “challenge”, “respect”, “aspiration”. It is one thing to know that commands of God, but quite another to actual do them consistently. It’s that “sin” thing that gets in the way over and over.

Yet the writer of this passage appears to experience the commandments differently. If you read the rest of this psalm it’s obvious the writer is under duress and struggling to see a way forward. There are lots of questions and few answers. What to do? Instead of figuring out the details of his situation he turns to the statutes and commandments of God. In essence, it is his hope that by following God’s ways the Lord will provide the wisdom and insight he needs to successfully navigate the many threats before him.

Lead me in the path of your commandments, for I delight in it.”

Again, it’s the word “delight” that gets my attention. What does that word mean in the original language of Hebrew? Is “delight” the right English translation or is there something missing here? So I did a study of the Hebrew word “חָפֵץ (ḥāpēṣ)” and found some interesting variations on the meaning of this word. One such variation is the use of this Hebrew word to describe the state of a nursing baby at its mother’s breast. Interesting!

Have you ever seen a nursing baby at the breast? Or even nursed a child yourself? Usually there is a sense of calm in the child at the breast, and why not? The child is snuggled up to the mother. She is warm and soft and nurturing. I would guess the child, whose head lays against mother’s chest, hears the mother’s comforting heartbeat. It’s a very intimate act which I’m sure is intended by God. It solidifies the bond between child and mother which is important for the child’s development and growth. Many times the child will even fall asleep while nursing, at peace wrapped in mother’s warmth and love – with a belly full of mother’s milk.

Now recall how this word is used by the psalmist. This is a person struggling with hardship, uncertain as to the way forward, and yet takes “delight” in the commandments of God – which provide this kind of calm in the midst of the storm. So this morning I share in the prayer of the psalmist. O God, lead me in the path of your commandments that I might “delight” in it – and be at peace. Amen.

Entrusting to God what we do not know…

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Psalm 119:21–24 (NRSV): 21 You rebuke the insolent, accursed ones,
who wander from your commandments;
22 take away from me their scorn and contempt,
for I have kept your decrees.
23 Even though princes sit plotting against me,
your servant will meditate on your statutes.
24 Your decrees are my delight,
they are my counselors.

We’re not told specifically who wrote this psalm, but it indicates this is a person of the ruling class of Israel – perhaps the king or some very highly placed official. Leadership is difficult in my small corner of the world so I can only imagine how much more complex and difficult it would be to rule an entire nation.

I am particularly drawn to v.24 above. In the midst of the constantly changing landscape of leadership, one can easily be overwhelmed. I’ve been a leader for most of my life, with over 20 years of experience as an ordained clergy person. I’ve served in local, regional, and national contexts and yet I am constantly encountering situations I’ve never seen before – especially since this whole pandemic began almost two years ago. How can anyone know what to do from day to day in this kind of changing reality?

“Your decrees are my delight, they are my counselors.”

I think what the writer is saying is that he doesn’t have to know about every situation that comes along in order to lead effectively. The possibilities are endless and any attempt to predict what is coming next is pointless. There will always be situations in which a leader simply does not know what to do. But… then there are the decrees of the Lord.

What the writer is telling us is that he acts on the things he knows (God’s decrees and ordinances) and entrusts to God the things he doesn’t know. And as one called by God to serve as a leader among God’s people Israel, God will step in at the point where the writer’s capacity ends. When we are deficient, our God comes to our aid, bearing us up in our moments of truth. Lord, let it be so. Amen.

Open to me the gates of righteousness…

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Psalm 118: 15 There are glad songs of victory in the tents of the righteous: “The right hand of the Lord does valiantly; 16 the right hand of the Lord is exalted; the right hand of the Lord does valiantly.” 17 I shall not die, but I shall live, and recount the deeds of the Lord. 18 The Lord has punished me severely, but he did not give me over to death. 19 Open to me the gates of righteousness, that I may enter through them and give thanks to the Lord. 20 This is the gate of the Lord; the righteous shall enter through it. 

This passage starts with the writer making it clear he has gotten off track with the Lord, “The Lord has punished me severely” (v.18). And yet the writer also believes the Lord will open “the gates of righteousness”, effecting a restoration of his relationship with the Lord. In all of this it is God who is the one with agency, not the writer. Yes, God punishes, but God also restores. There is accountability with God toward his children, but there is also grace and hope.

This morning I find myself echoing verses 18-19 toward God. I have sinned against God. I have no excuse. I deserve judgment. And yet I call upon the Lord to turn me away from evil toward what is good. Heavenly Father, you can do this. I lay myself at your feet. Have mercy on me, a sinner, and make me whole. Amen.

We all worship something…

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Psalm 116: 16 O Lord, I am your servant; I am your servant, the child of your serving girl. You have loosed my bonds. 17 I will offer to you a thanksgiving sacrifice and call on the name of the Lord. 18 I will pay my vows to the Lord in the presence of all his people…

The Hebrew word (עֶבֶד ʿebed) translated as “servant” in verse 16 above can also be translated as “slave”. This creates an apparent contradiction when the writer states he is the “slave” of God, yet says that God has “loosed my bonds” – indicating one who has been set free from bondage. How does that work?

I’ve heard it said that everyone worships something – be it God or money or another person or a job or whatever. If this is true then the question is “to what will I give myself”? Scripture teaches that the most life-giving thing to worship is God, the Creator of heaven and earth. This is what the psalmist is writing about. Publicly offering to God a thanksgiving sacrifice, giving this kind of public testimony, is a powerful witness to everyone watching and encourages other people to follow suit.

Lord give me grace to bear witness to you today and to willingly submit myself to you as Lord of my life. Amen.

Right and wrong… and the pain of now…

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Hebrews 12:1 Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God. 

In chapter 11 of Hebrews the writer names a list of heroes of the faith – persons who endured all kinds of trials in this (temporary) life as they looked to the promise of the next (eternal) life. Of course, there is no greater example of this than Jesus himself who endured suffering on the cross for our sakes.

From a logical perspective this makes sense to me. However long our mortal lives may ultimately be, it is a relative tick of the clock compared to eternal life – which has no end. And if logic were the only consideration I believe most people would make the same choice as our forebears and Jesus himself. We would endure now looking ahead to the much, much longer time to come. But of course logic isn’t the only factor is it?

Problem: the pain of now is very real while eternity is more of an idea than a concrete reality.

The pain of now has a way of hijacking my decisions, moving me in the wrong direction because the right direction is too painful. And while we don’t generally pay with our lives for being Christians as others have, following the way of faith is often the more difficult path. This morning I’m wondering where I’m being tempted to choose wrong instead of right. Lord give me grace to choose your ways. Even when it’s hard. Amen.

Examples of deep faith…

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Hebrews 11:32 And what more should I say? For time would fail me to tell of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, of David and Samuel and the prophets— 33 who through faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice, obtained promises, shut the mouths of lions, 34 quenched raging fire, escaped the edge of the sword, won strength out of weakness, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight. 35 Women received their dead by resurrection. Others were tortured, refusing to accept release, in order to obtain a better resurrection. 36 Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. 37 They were stoned to death, they were sawn in two, they were killed by the sword; they went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, persecuted, tormented— 38 of whom the world was not worthy. They wandered in deserts and mountains, and in caves and holes in the ground. 

The writer of Hebrews is highlighting many of the notable characters in the Old Testament through whom God did remarkable things in the history of Israel. They are mentioned as examples of deep faith, which they most certainly are. However, in case we might be tempted to go looking for this kind of calling from God, there are two things to remember.

First, none of the people mentioned here went looking for the seemingly impossible jobs God gave to them. They didn’t go looking for God, God went looking for them. God chose them and appointed them as persons through whom great things would be done. In fact many of them resisted the call at first, but eventually got on board. There is no sign-up sheet, no recruiting office for people wanting to do the impossible in the name of the Lord. V.35-37 describes the terrible suffering most of them endured. Few people, if any, would have willingly chosen such a fate.

Secondly, when God gave to these people their seemingly impossible assignments, God also poured into them grace to be able to see it through. They didn’t start with this kind of faith. God gave it to them as a gift so that, in the name of the Lord, great things might be done through ordinary people and the name of the Lord would be known throughout the world.

Gracious God, as you did for the heroes of the faith, give us grace to say yes when called upon so that you might be given glory through us. We pray this in Jesus’ name. Amen.

Extreme faith…

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Hebrews 11:17 By faith Abraham, when put to the test, offered up Isaac. He who had received the promises was ready to offer up his only son, 18 of whom he had been told, “It is through Isaac that descendants shall be named for you.” 19 He considered the fact that God is able even to raise someone from the dead—and figuratively speaking, he did receive him back.

When some people read this narrative they are struck by the brutality of the command of God – asking Abraham to put his only son Isaac to death. They condemn God for asking and Abraham for complying. I agree it’s an extreme request, but I also think it’s important to interpret the story in the spirit in which it was given. Abraham’s willingness to follow God’s command is offered as a profound act of “faith”, which is the theme of this section of the book of Hebrews. And of course, while God ultimately spared Isaac, God did not spare his own son Jesus from suffering and death.

Heavenly Father, I hope you never ask me to do anything as extreme as you asked Abraham, but I also pray you will give me grace to obey even when I don’t understand. I pray this in Jesus’ name. Amen.