June 20, 2018- Preserve Us From Violence- Psalm 140, Romans 12:19

protect me jesus

Deliver me, O Lord, from evil men; preserve me from violent men, who plan evil things in their heart and stir up wars continually. They make their tongue sharp as a serpent’s, and under their lips is the venom of asps. *Selah

Guard me, O Lord, from the hands of the wicked; preserve me from violent men, who have planned to trip up my feet. The arrogant have hidden a trap for me, and with cords they have spread a net; beside the way they have set snares for me. *Selah

 I say to the Lord, You are my God; give ear to the voice of my pleas for mercy, O Lord!  O Lord, my Lord, the strength of my salvation, you have covered my head in the day of battle. Grant not, O Lord, the desires of the wicked; do not further their evil plot, or they will be exalted!  *Selah

As for the head of those who surround me, let the mischief of their lips overwhelm them! Let burning coals fall upon them! Let them be cast into fire, into miry pits, no more to rise!  Let not the slanderer be established in the land; let evil hunt down the violent man speedily!

I know that the Lord will maintain the cause of the afflicted, and will execute justice for the needy. Surely the righteous shall give thanks to your name; the upright shall dwell in your presence.

Psalm 140 (ESV)

This Psalm is attributed to David. Many times during David’s life he encountered people who didn’t have his best interest in mind.  His predecessor, Saul, tried to kill him more than once. (1 Samuel 19) His own son, Absalom, tried to take over David’s throne. (2 Samuel 16:5-13 ) We encounter adversaries and people who oppose us also.  We will rub some people the wrong way just because we believe in Jesus (John 15:20).  We will encounter people who take delight in scandal, and in spreading lies, or who are unwilling to forgive us for real or even perceived wrongs.

Our prayers to God are meaningful. He hears every one of them. God knows our anguish when wrong things happen to us and other people are cruel to us. The psalmists in Scripture bring every condition and emotion to God in prayer.  God knows when we are angry or unforgiving or frustrated anyway.  We should be honest with Him when we pray, because prayer is one of the ways that God changes our hearts and minds to conform to His will.  When we pray the Psalms we discover a depth of sincerity and emotion.

This being said, in the frank and sometimes violent language of the Psalms we see the humanity of the writers. We want violence done to our enemies, especially for the times we don’t deserve to be slandered or harmed by them. It is better for us to commit our enemies and those who oppose us to God in prayer. God does protect His people.  He forgives us when we do wrong things, and we can trust Him for His vindication and for His mercy when people treat us in wrong ways.

Jesus was persecuted and wronged also, yet He bore the punishment for us -for all the times that we were and are the evil wrongdoer.

It is good to pray first and let God deal with our anger when other people hurt us. The apostle Paul reminds us that God reserves vengeance for Himself.

Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” Romans 12:19 (ESV)

Only God knows the entire story behind us and our enemies, and only He can see both sides impartially.

We need to take everything to God in prayer- thanks, praise, supplication, grief, anger- He wants us to come to Him with it all. We can trust God that He will protect us.  We will be vindicated and forgiven, as well. In Christ, we have the freedom and the grace to commend our enemies to the judgment and mercy of God.

June 1, 2018- Sing, Dance, Worship! Let God- Psalm 81, Romans 12:1-2, 1 John 1:9

David Dancing before the Lord

Sing aloud to God our strength; shout for joy to the God of Jacob! Raise a song; sound the tambourine, the sweet lyre with the harp. Blow the trumpet at the new moon, at the full moon, on our feast day.

For it is a statute for Israel, a rule of the God of Jacob.

He made it a decree in Joseph when he went out over the land of Egypt. I hear a language I had not known: “I relieved your shoulder of the burden; your hands were freed from the basket. In distress you called, and I delivered you; I answered you in the secret place of thunder; I tested you at the waters of Meribah. Selah

Hear, O my people, while I admonish you! O Israel, if you would but listen to me! There shall be no strange god among you; you shall not bow down to a foreign god. I am the Lord your God, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt. Open your mouth wide, and I will fill it.

“But my people did not listen to my voice; Israel would not submit to me. 

So I gave them over to their stubborn hearts to follow their own counsels. Oh, that my people would listen to me, that Israel would walk in my ways!

I would soon subdue their enemies and turn my hand against their foes.

Those who hate the Lord would cringe toward him, and their fate would last forever. But he would feed you with the finest of the wheat, and with honey from the rock I would satisfy you.” Psalm 81 (ESV)

Shouting for joy and jumping around with trumpets and tambourines might not sound very Lutheran- though it actually is. Lutheran congregations in Africa- and there are more Lutherans in Africa than in the United States- are known for very lively and colorful worship. Those of us in the American Midwest tend to be rather conservative and reserved in our expressions of emotion, including our expressions of emotion in worship. Even so, the northern European Lutheran tradition- where many of us Midwesterners originate from- includes the music of great composers such as Johann Sebastian Bach and George Frederick Handel (Handel was an Anglican, but we like his music anyway). Martin Luther himself wrote many hymns, the best known of which is, “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God.” Music of many genres and styles has traditionally held a high place in Lutheran worship.

The people of Israel in David’s time, when many of the Psalms were written, were not conservative about their expression in worship. It was normal and expected for people to sing, play instruments, and dance (yes, dance) as part of worship. (2 Samuel 6:12-18)

The Psalms were a big part of both teaching and worship.  Since most people weren’t literate in ancient times, it was easier to teach essential truths if they were set to music and sung out loud.

The Psalms don’t sound as lyrical and poetic in the English language as they were written in the original Hebrew, but they are prayers as well as lessons- and they were generally meant to be sung.

There is a contrast here between the beginning of the Psalm, as the Psalmist is praising God and singing for joy, and the second part of the Psalm where God’s people are being obstinate and stubborn. On one hand we as new creations in Christ want to hear the good news and praise God and live as God’s people.  Then the old Adam steps in and starts screaming like a petulant toddler, “MY way, not THY way.” We think we can do better than God. We try to live life our way.  Then we get mad when our way just doesn’t work out.  It’s frustrating, but it is also part of the human condition in this broken world.

We can’t just make up our minds on our own to “straighten up and fly right.” When we do this on our own willpower, we are not really conforming ourselves to the mind of Christ. We end up becoming legalistic and stuffy and self-righteous. (Think Dana Carvey as the Church Lady.)  Rather, we must rely on the mercy and grace of God to let Him transform us.  A good way to visualize our transformation is as we “put on baptism” every day- we acknowledge and remember that we are named and claimed as children of God. Baptism is a means of grace that comes completely as a gift of God and is through no works of our own. He will do for us what we are not able to do on our own.

I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect. Romans 12:1-2 (ESV)

So we return to the themes of Psalm 81- Joy. Worship. Trust God– but trust in ourselves…not so much. When we confess to Jesus that we continually sin and fall short of His good will for us, He promises to forgive us and bind up our wounds, as we learn from 1 John 1:9. We have the assurance that God will carry our burdens. We can be confident that God will see us through our distress and that God will provide us with all good things.  We can’t be afraid to sing it loud and sing it proud- and to live a life of worship.  God feeds us with the finest wheat.  Jesus freely gives us the feast of His Body and Blood, the honey from the rock, and He sustains us with His good and healing Word.  We are set free to love God, to love and serve our neighbor, and to sing out in worship.

March 14, 2018 Spreading the Light- Mercy vs. Judgment John 8:12-20, James 2:12-14

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When Jesus spoke again to the people, he said, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.”

 The Pharisees challenged him, “Here you are, appearing as your own witness; your testimony is not valid.”

Jesus answered, “Even if I testify on my own behalf, my testimony is valid, for I know where I came from and where I am going. But you have no idea where I come from or where I am going. You judge by human standards; I pass judgment on no one.  But if I do judge, my decisions are true, because I am not alone. I stand with the Father, who sent me. In your own Law it is written that the testimony of two witnesses is true. I am one who testifies for myself; my other witness is the Father, who sent me.”

Then they asked him, “Where is your father?”

“You do not know me or my Father,” Jesus replied. “If you knew me, you would know my Father also.” He spoke these words while teaching in the temple courts near the place where the offerings were put. Yet no one seized him, because his hour had not yet come. John 8:12-20 (NIV)

The writer of the Gospel of John speaks of Jesus being the light (light of the world, light of life, etc.) in thirteen specific references. The concept of Jesus being the light obviously was a point the Holy Spirit wanted the writer of John to get across.

The Pharisees did not want to acknowledge who Jesus was because they were not able to see Him as He is. They were looking for a mighty warrior who would restore the physical kingdom of Israel. They were thinking in terms of an earthly king.  Their vision was limited.

Sometimes we get caught up in what we think we want to see in Jesus that we lose sight of the real Jesus.  Sometimes we get so preoccupied with our own fears and our own darkness that we don’t- or can’t- look up and see the real light.  We all experience those dark nights of the soul where God seems far away.

Even though we struggle and often we have a hard time with the challenge between doubt and faith, at our Baptism we are marked with the Cross of Christ forever. We belong to God even when our feelings or our behavior might indicate otherwise. We are called and made able- not by our own will, but by God’s will- to not only see the light of Christ but to reflect and radiate that light.

Do our lives testify to the light and to the reality of Jesus? Do others see His light shining in and through us?

We can get so mired down in the laws God gives us for our own good that we see them as chains that bind us, or as hammers to hit others over the head with, instead of boundaries given out of love and designed to protect us.

Jesus challenged the Pharisees at numerous points where they used the Law as a hammer, to bring down judgment on others rather than to use the Law to bring people to repentance and to show us our constant need for Jesus.

Do we look at other people and say, “At least I don’t do that sin!” It’s tempting to do when we see what we perceive to be truly scandalous behavior, but sins of the heart and sins committed in the dark outside the public eye are still grieving to God.  We are all guilty under the Law.

It is better for us to look at ourselves and say, “God, have mercy on me, a sinner, of whom I am chief?” (to borrow from the apostle Paul-1 Timothy 1:15 .)

The Holy Spirit is always there for us to call upon- in those dark times when we can’t see, in those times that we struggle with doubt, and in those times that we forget that mercy triumphs over judgment.

Speak and act as those who are going to be judged by the law that gives freedom, because judgment without mercy will be shown to anyone who has not been merciful. Mercy triumphs over judgment. James 2:12-14 (NIV)

Lord, may we be vessels of your light and comfort to those around us, and may we remember that it is only by your grace that we are forgiven and made your own.

 

 

January 18, 2018 – Courage, Conversion and Salvation- Acts 4:8-12, Psalm 118:22-24, Romans 8:26-27

cornerstone

 

Then Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit, said to them: “Rulers and elders of the people! If we are being called to account today for an act of kindness shown to a man who was lame and are being asked how he was healed, then know this, you and all the people of Israel: It is by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified but whom God raised from the dead, that this man stands before you healed.  Jesus is:

“‘the stone you builders rejected,  which has become the cornerstone.’

Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to mankind by which we must be saved.” Acts 4:8-12 (NIV)

The stone the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; The Lord has done this, and it is marvelous in our eyes. The Lord has done it this very day; Let us rejoice today and be glad. Psalm 118:22-24 (NIV)

Imagine the courage it would take to do what Peter did- to stand up to the authorities and defend his faith.

What would we do in Peter’s position? This was the same guy who had denied Jesus three times before the cock crowed (Matthew 26:75.)  Yet after Jesus’ resurrection and ascension Peter had been filled with the Holy Spirit.  He had supernatural courage that only God could give him to speak boldly even when such speech could cost him his freedom or even his life.

Sometimes we wonder if the Holy Spirit is still at work today. Where is that courage we need when we aren’t feeling it, or when we know we should speak up for what is right, but we don’t?

“In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us through wordless groans. And he who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for God’s people in accordance with the will of God.” Romans 8:26-27 (NIV)

We can be confident that God the Holy Spirit will fill in the gaps. He is strong where we are weak.  That is how Peter, who betrayed Jesus three times, became a bold and stalwart witness for Him.

The Holy Spirit still intervenes for us today. He brings us back to the One Who has become the cornerstone. He gives us the courage to stand when we no longer have- or never did have- the power to stand on our own.  He brings us back from a place of denial and cowardice into a place of defending our faith.

Different Christian traditions have differing views on soteriology (the “how” of salvation) but we can all agree on the Who of salvation.  Whether we believe that salvation is a one-time lightning bolt event, whether we believe we choose God, or that He chooses us, or whether we believe salvation is a gradual and life-long process, the Who of salvation is not in question. It all comes back to the Cornerstone the builders rejected, the Suffering Servant (Isaiah 53:1-5) who Isaiah spoke of so long ago.

Perhaps we can agree that the Holy Spirit has endless means of grace at His disposal. After all, Saul the Pharisee- who became the apostle Paul- was knocked off his high horse on the Damascus Road. That was a pretty dramatic conversion event.  Some of us have experienced dramatic conversion events as well.  Others of us have gently grown into faith over the years through a series of small epiphanies and discoveries about God.  God does speak to each of us differently, and we are called to respond.  We can trust that when we are asked to attest to the reality and the power of God in Christ, the Holy Spirit will lead us and give us the words we need when we don’t have our own.

January 17, 2018- Changing God’s Mind?- Jonah 3:1-10, Ephesians 2:8-11

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Then the word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time: “Go to the great city of Nineveh and proclaim to it the message I give you.”

Jonah obeyed the word of the Lord and went to Nineveh. Now Nineveh was a very large city; it took three days to go through it.  Jonah began by going a day’s journey into the city, proclaiming, “Forty more days and Nineveh will be overthrown.”  The Ninevites believed God. A fast was proclaimed, and all of them, from the greatest to the least, put on sackcloth.

When Jonah’s warning reached the king of Nineveh, he rose from his throne, took off his royal robes, covered himself with sackcloth and sat down in the dust. This is the proclamation he issued in Nineveh:

“By the decree of the king and his nobles:

Do not let people or animals, herds or flocks, taste anything; do not let them eat or drink. But let people and animals be covered with sackcloth. Let everyone call urgently on God. Let them give up their evil ways and their violence.  Who knows? God may yet relent and with compassion turn from his fierce anger so that we will not perish.”

When God saw what they did and how they turned from their evil ways, he relented and did not bring on them the destruction he had threatened. Jonah 3:1-10 (NIV)

The story of Jonah – whether we take the entire story as literal fact or as an allegory intended to teach us about our purpose, and about God’s grace- is a hopeful story for us. It has a lesson for us about how God views our enemies, too.

Jonah didn’t want to go to Nineveh. The first time God asked Jonah to go to Nineveh, Jonah got sidetracked and decided to go the opposite way (Jonah 1-2) which didn’t end well for Jonah.  Jonah ended up in Nineveh the second time God asked him.  Sometimes God has to ask us a few times before we get the hint that we need to go where He leads us, even if we don’t particularly want to go there.  Jonah didn’t think the Ninevites deserved saving, but God had other plans for them.

Some people have brought up the question of whether or not God changes His mind. Given that we know three basic qualities of God- that He is omnipotent (all powerful), omnipresent (everywhere at the same time in all times and places), and omniscient (all knowing), it would be safe to say it is unlikely- though not impossible- that God changes His mind.

Sometimes, like wayward children, we have to be dragged kicking and screaming to the place where our heavenly Father intends for us to be.

Perhaps prayer and supplication and spiritual disciplines- especially the disciplines of confession and repentance, serve to bring us closer to God’s mind and heart?  After all, Jesus taught us to pray, “Thy will be done.”

Perhaps the message here is that God finds a way to get to his people, and to accomplish His purpose through them?

For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast.  For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do. Ephesians 2:8-11 (NIV)

The apostle Paul teaches us that our life and our purpose are gifts of God. We are made by God for God.  So are the people that we don’t like so much. God wants our attitude to align with His attitude-which isn’t always such an easy prayer to pray.

How does this particular epiphany influence our attitude regarding the people around us, and our own place and purpose in God’s world?

December 19, 2017- The Great Exchange- Isaiah 61:1-3, Hosea 2:23, Colossians 1:19-20

ashesforbeauty

The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on me, because the Lord has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor and the day of vengeance of our God, to comfort all who mourn, and provide for those who grieve in Zion—to bestow on them a crown of beauty instead of ashes, the oil of joy instead of mourning, and a garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair. They will be called oaks of righteousness, a planting of the Lord for the display of his splendor. Isaiah 61:1-3 (NIV)

I will plant her for myself in the land; I will show my love to the one I called ‘Not my loved one.’ I will say to those called ‘Not my people,’ ‘You are my people’; and they will say, ‘You are my God.’” Hosea 2:23 (NIV)

For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in Him, (Jesus) and through Him to reconcile to Himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through His blood, shed on the cross. Colossians 1:19-20 (NIV)

Beauty for ashes, joy for mourning, and praise for despair- this is the exchange that God promises His people. He comes to us, people who have separated ourselves from Him, and still claims us as His own.

The Book of Hosea tells us of Hosea’s unfaithful wife- and how her behavior paralleled that of Israel toward God. In spite of the unfaithful wife’s (Israel’s) behavior and fallen ways, God says: “You are my people.”  “You are my loved one.” “I have named you and claimed you as my own.”

Natural law – the way the world works, states that actions have consequences- and they do. All of us have made mistakes and fallen short of God’s good plans for us (it’s called sin.)  All of us have paid heavy prices in this life for our own mistakes and for the mistakes of others.  We are all “walking wounded,” partially from our own mistakes and sin, and partially just from the human condition and living in this fallen world. All of us carry the ashes of mourning and  despair over dreams that have died.

Yet this is where God steps in with grace and mercy (unmerited favor) and says to us: Give me your ashes. I will exchange them for beauty. Give me your mourning. I will trade it for joy.  Give me your despair. I will give you songs of praise. I will heal your broken heart.

God tenderly reaches out to us with His outstretched arms: Give me your weakness and your vulnerability, and I will wrap you in My strength.

As we wait and watch and long for fulfillment of God’s promises in this world of not-yet, we look to Jesus, Who came to earth as one of us. He was subject to all of the hurt and wounding and suffering of this world, yet He lived as one of us. He sacrificed Himself so that God could truly be with us- He exchanged Himself, perfect in every way, to cover our imperfections, and to exchange our sin and death for His beauty, joy, praise, strength and life.

Are we willing to give Him our ashes, our mourning, our despair? Jesus gave Himself so that we could have life in Him.

 

 

October 11, 2017 – The Command and the Promise- 1 Corinthians 11:23-25, Leviticus 17:11

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“For I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, “This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way he took the cup also, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.” 1 Corinthians 11:23-25 (NRSV)

Therefore such people must learn that it is the highest art to know that our Sacrament does not depend upon our worthiness. For we are not baptized because we are worthy and holy, nor do we go to confession because we are pure and without sin, but the contrary because we are poor miserable men and just because we are unworthy; unless it be someone who desires no grace and absolution nor intends to reform.

But whoever would gladly obtain grace and consolation should impel himself, and allow no one to frighten him away, but say: I, indeed, would like to be worthy, but I come, not upon any worthiness, but upon Thy Word, because Thou hast commanded it, as one who would gladly be Thy disciple, no matter what becomes of my worthiness. But this is difficult; for we always have this obstacle and hindrance to encounter, that we look more upon ourselves than upon the Word and lips of Christ. For nature desires so to act that it can stand and rest firmly on itself, otherwise it refuses to make the approach. Let this suffice concerning the first point.

In the second place, there is besides this command also a promise, as we heard above, which ought most strongly to incite and encourage us. For here stand the kind and precious words: This is My body, given for you. This is My blood, shed for you, for the remission of sins. These words, I have said, are not preached to wood and stone, but to me and you; else He might just as well be silent and not institute a Sacrament. Therefore consider, and put yourself into this YOU, that He may not speak to you in vain. – from the explanation of the Sacrament of the Altar, Martin Luther’s Large Catechism

The Sacrament of the Altar holds both a commandDo this in remembrance of Me – and a promiseThis cup is the new covenant in My Blood.

The concept of blood sacrifice seems rather raw and primal in the modern age. We have distanced ourselves as much as we humanly can from the processes of life that are raw, dirty or “icky.”  We keep death itself behind closed hospital doors, and the mourning of the dead to a carefully orchestrated display in a funeral home that often involves the deceased, heavily reconstructed and made over, laid out in an open coffin so that he or she looks to be sleeping.  In American culture, even in death the subliminal message is to deny the reality and finality of death. (For an interesting aside on American funerary practices, The American Way of Death, written by Jessica Mitford is quite an eye opener.)

The slaughter of animals for our food is kept to industrial warehouses behind closed doors where none but the workers who work the line see the death or the gore or the blood. Even in the somewhat recent past, farming families butchered their own cattle, hogs and chickens, so there was some knowledge that our meat- which is sustenance for our own lives- comes from another living creature who had to die.  Today a child would be hard pressed to make the correlation between that tasty plate of chicken nuggets and a live chicken.

So we encounter Jesus’ command and His promise in the Last Supper, especially that creepy sounding business about blood, and we really don’t understand how to process it.

For the life of the flesh is in the blood; and I have given it to you for making atonement for your lives on the altar; for, as life, it is the blood that makes atonement. Leviticus 17:11 (NRSV)

The key to understanding the importance of  blood sacrifice for atonement of sins is in the old sacrificial system of the Jews. The blood is the life.  So when the Jews made sacrifices of animals to atone for their sins, they were foreshadowing the One Sacrifice that would cover our sin once and for all.

We are commanded to come to the table, to take the Body of Christ into our bodies, and to drink the Blood of Christ that was shed for the forgiveness of our sins. We are commanded not because we are worthy, or because we understand how it works, but precisely because we aren’t worthy and can’t make ourselves worthy.  We are able to come to the table to take and eat, and take and drink because Jesus IS worthy, and He IS telling us to.

September 13, 2017- Are We In the Place of God? Genesis 50:15-21, Ephesians 2:10

Joseph-and-Benjamin-in-Egypt

Realizing that their father was dead, Joseph’s brothers said, “What if Joseph still bears a grudge against us and pays us back in full for all the wrong that we did to him?”  So they approached Joseph, saying, “Your father gave this instruction before he died, ‘Say to Joseph: I beg you, forgive the crime of your brothers and the wrong they did in harming you.’ Now therefore please forgive the crime of the servants of the God of your father.” Joseph wept when they spoke to him.  Then his brothers also wept, fell down before him, and said, “We are here as your slaves.”  But Joseph said to them, “Do not be afraid! Am I in the place of God? Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good, in order to preserve a numerous people, as he is doing today.  So have no fear; I myself will provide for you and your little ones.” In this way he reassured them, speaking kindly to them. Genesis 50:15-21 (NRSV)

Are we in the place of God?

When it comes to exacting revenge, we shouldn’t presume to stand in the place of God, even though sometimes we really want to.

Surprisingly Joseph doesn’t choose to repay his brothers for selling him into slavery even though he would have every right to do so. In our lives there are so many times we want to take our pound of flesh from everyone who has wronged us, and we want to play the tit for tat game.

The problem with playing tit for tat- exacting our own revenge- is that we don’t have God’s perspective on the purpose of events in our lives.

Joseph’s brothers had no idea that the pesky younger brother who was their father’s favorite would be transformed from being a slave into a savior.

In some ways Joseph teaches us about one of his descendants- Jesus- Who became the suffering servant and ultimately the Savior of all.

Jesus gave Himself as a sacrifice and joined us in our humanity. Humanity rewarded Him by hanging Him on a tree to die.

Yet God’s mercy and grace abound even when we betray our fellow humans. Like Joseph, Jesus comes to us as a brother, a friend, and offers us provision in our times of desperation and need instead of the vengeance we deserve.

Joseph ended up in Egypt for the very purpose of preserving his family- a family that includes Jesus’ ancestors. God knew what was happening to Joseph was ultimately for good even though Joseph’s brothers intended their actions for evil.

How do we know that the cruelty someone else inflicts on us today may not end up as a means for us to glorify God?

Sometimes being merciful is hard. It’s difficult to forgive when we have been wounded.  But sometimes that’s God’s plan for us, to forgive the unforgivable and love the unlovable.

We may not stand in the place of God, but we can trust that He stands with us, and that He will give us what we need to do the good things He intended for us to do. Even when it’s hard.  Even when we want revenge.

For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life. Ephesians 2:10 (NRSV)

September 12, 2017 – Selling Your Brother Down the River – Genesis 37:18-28

Joseph-Thrown-in-the-Pit 

They saw him (Joseph) from a distance, and before he came near to them, they conspired to kill him. They said to one another, “Here comes this dreamer. Come now, let us kill him and throw him into one of the pits; then we shall say that a wild animal has devoured him, and we shall see what will become of his dreams.”  But when Reuben heard it, he delivered him out of their hands, saying, “Let us not take his life.”  Reuben said to them, “Shed no blood; throw him into this pit here in the wilderness, but lay no hand on him”—that he might rescue him out of their hand and restore him to his father. So when Joseph came to his brothers, they stripped him of his robe, the long robe with sleeves that he wore; and they took him and threw him into a pit. The pit was empty; there was no water in it.

Then they sat down to eat; and looking up they saw a caravan of Ishmaelites coming from Gilead, with their camels carrying gum, balm, and resin, on their way to carry it down to Egypt. Then Judah said to his brothers, “What profit is it if we kill our brother and conceal his blood? Come, let us sell him to the Ishmaelites, and not lay our hands on him, for he is our brother, our own flesh.” And his brothers agreed. When some Midianite traders passed by, they drew Joseph up, lifting him out of the pit, and sold him to the Ishmaelites for twenty pieces of silver. And they took Joseph to Egypt. Genesis 37:18-28 (NRSV)

Siblings can be vicious, especially when one sibling is highly favored over others, and /or when resources are in short supply, and/or the siblings are close in age. Jealousy can motivate the fiercest of competition. The competition and rage that jealousy inspires can end in tragedy.

In Joseph’s case he was clearly Jacob’s favorite son. His father, Jacob, had a special coat made for Joseph, and set him up in a position of authority over his older sons. It seemed to be a bit of a mistake for Joseph to share his dream of being in power (Genesis 37:1-11) over his brothers, as this revelation only poured gasoline over the fire of their jealousy and rage.

As the story continues, it looks bad for Joseph. He’s sold off as a slave to the Egyptians, but it’s a kinder fate than what he would have suffered at the hands of his brothers.

God stepped in for Jacob. Even though he was sold as a slave, and endured prison and other trials while in Egypt, he found favor with the Egyptians and eventually found his way into the Pharaoh’s court.

Joseph, the brother who was sold down the river, was put in a place to help his brothers and the rest of his family when they were in desperate need during a famine.

The telling element of Joseph’s character was that he was more than willing to help his brothers who had sold him for what would be equivalent to about $25 today.

The level of Joseph’s help to his family during the famine- including his betrayer siblings- is also worth mentioning. He didn’t send dented cans of beets and okra or old toothpaste samples and expired produce to his family.  He sent the very best of the food stores and other products of Egypt.  (Genesis 45)

In our lives we have played both roles- the betrayer and the betrayed. Even though we would like to think better, we have all been in the place of Peter the apostle who claimed he could never betray Jesus, yet he did it three times just as Jesus knew he would.  And we have all been on the receiving end of a friend or family member who has let us down or been cruel to us in some way.

Yet in spite of betrayal and hurt there is grace. In Christ there is grace to for us to forgive those who have trespassed against us, (as we pray in the Lord’s Prayer) and even to aid them in their time of need.  In Christ we can accept the forgiveness of those we have wronged and we can move closer to make what was wrong right again.

God always proves to be the hero of the story, not us. God can and does work His will even through our tragedies and our failings.

How can we be messengers of grace today?

August 29, 2017 – We Hypocrites, (but for the Grace of God) Romans 2:1-11

hypocrites-room-for-more

Therefore you have no excuse, whoever you are, when you judge others; for in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, are doing the very same things. You say, “We know that God’s judgment on those who do such things is in accordance with truth.” Do you imagine, whoever you are, that when you judge those who do such things and yet do them yourself, you will escape the judgment of God? Or do you despise the riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience? Do you not realize that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance? But by your hard and impenitent heart you are storing up wrath for yourself on the day of wrath, when God’s righteous judgment will be revealed. For he will repay according to each one’s deeds: to those who by patiently doing good seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life; while for those who are self-seeking and who obey not the truth but wickedness, there will be wrath and fury. There will be anguish and distress for everyone who does evil, the Jew first and also the Greek, but glory and honor and peace for everyone who does good, the Jew first and also the Greek. For God shows no partiality. Romans 2:1-11 (NRSV)

Many of my atheist friends- and I have had many atheist friends and acquaintances in the past- say that their number one problem with those who claim to be Christian or claim to follow Jesus are “such hypocrites.”

It is true that the same problems exist in Christian communities that exist in non-religious communities. Divorce happens. Poverty happens. Substance abuse, alcoholism and addiction happen. Promiscuity and unwed pregnancy happen. Apathy and indifference happen.

So how is following Jesus supposed to make a difference if all the same social ills go on in Christian homes? As one of my atheist friends put it, “What good does following God do me if I am no better for it?”

The response to that is that we are all hypocrites. There’s a saying that, “I wish I were as good a person as my dog thinks I am.” If only we could be. The problem is that we can’t. It is only by the grace of God that anything good at all can come from any of us.

We can choose how we respond when bad things happen to people though. Putting our heads in the sand and ignoring these things is not an option. Pointing the finger of blame isn’t helpful either. Those responses are what the world does. The world accepts broken homes, addiction and immoral behavior as being “normal.” The God-honoring response is not one of judgment or exclusion, because we know how human and fallible we all can be.

let love guide you

The God-honoring response is a proactive response, a loving response that comes from a heart set on God. That response is color blind. That response forgives and understands. That is a response that is merciful and kind no matter how the other person has failed or is failing. The response that honors God seeks healing and wholeness and restoration.

Yes, we are hypocrites. We fail daily at loving God with our whole hearts and loving others as we love ourselves. But God’s mercy and love show no partiality.

How does our response to our own failings and the failings of others further the cause of the Kingdom of God?