October 7, 2019- The Question of Evil – Praying for Retribution and Justice? Psalm 94:12-23

God love crucifix.jpg

Blessed is the man whom you discipline, O Lord,
and whom you teach out of your law,

to give him rest from days of trouble,
until a pit is dug for the wicked.

For the Lord will not forsake his people;
he will not abandon his heritage;

for justice will return to the righteous,
and all the upright in heart will follow it.

Who rises up for me against the wicked?
Who stands up for me against evildoers?

If the Lord had not been my help,
my soul would soon have lived in the land of silence.

When I thought, “My foot slips,”
your steadfast love, O Lord, held me up.

When the cares of my heart are many,
your consolations cheer my soul.

Can wicked rulers be allied with you,
those who frame injustice by statute?

They band together against the life of the righteous
and condemn the innocent to death.

But the Lord has become my stronghold,
and my God the rock of my refuge.

He will bring back on them their iniquity
and wipe them out for their wickedness;
the Lord our God will wipe them out.

Psalm 94:12-23 (ESV)

The Psalms are generally where we go when we seek comfort, to pray and praise, to find the words to reach out to God when we have no words of our own.  The full range of human emotion is expressed in the Psalms- joy, grief, thankfulness, longing, despair, and even anger.

We shouldn’t be surprised by the existence of or the harsh language of the imprecatory psalms.

(imprecation: the act of calling down a curse) 

In the imprecatory psalms the prayer is that God would curse the enemies of the people. There’s a “God, please get this bad guy, and by the way, he deserves to die,” sort of theme in these psalms that just isn’t there in the more commonly known psalms. The imprecatory psalms are cries for justice- that wicked rulers be brought down, and that evil people would be punished for their crimes, and that injustice would be put to a stop. We are invited in to rally behind the psalmist’s rage.

We can relate to the psalmist’s angst here when we see unfair legislation passed or the powers of government used in improper ways.   When life or the world is unfair it is easy for us to understand where the psalmist is coming from and to chime right in.

When we see those who should be good stewards of society and of the common good made corrupt and people are suffering without cause it should make us angry.  We should cry out to God.  We should be honest about how injustice makes us feel.

Then we remember that God is a just God.  We remember that we are not always the “good guy.” In fact we are the bad guy a lot of the time.  We need to be reminded as Nathan reminded David in 2 Samuel 12:1-15 – “You are the man!”

David was disciplined by God for his transgressions- the loss of his son with Bathsheba and the ever-present sword dividing his house.  Yet David was also beloved of God, the forefather of Jesus, the true King of Israel and of all things.

So we should pray the imprecatory psalms with caution, and with the understanding that even at our best we are simul justus et peccator – sinners and saints at the same time.  While we rail against the injustice and sinfulness of the world we rail against the same sinful things in us at the same time. We ask God to find those times when “we are the man” and reveal them to us so we can confess them to Him- so we can put those impulses and evil deeds that we hate (but we do anyway) to death, and be forgiven.

When I thought, “My foot slips,”
your steadfast love, O Lord, held me up.

God holds us up.  Even though we fail and even though we must drown the old Adam in the water of baptism on a daily basis, we are free to call out to God.  He will see that His justice is done.  He will defend and hold up those who belong to Him.

But the Lord has become my stronghold,
and my God the rock of my refuge.

 

July 26, 2018- A Dearth of Due Process-Paul, Apostle to the Gentiles- Acts 22:17-29

acts of the apostles

“When I (the apostle Paul) returned to Jerusalem and was praying at the temple, I fell into a trance and saw the Lord speaking to me. ‘Quick!’ he said. ‘Leave Jerusalem immediately, because the people here will not accept your testimony about me.’
“‘Lord,’ I replied, ‘these people know that I went from one synagogue to another to imprison and beat those who believe in you. And when the blood of your martyr Stephen was shed, I stood there giving my approval and guarding the clothes of those who were killing him.’
“Then the Lord said to me, ‘Go; I will send you far away to the Gentiles.’ ”
The crowd listened to Paul until he said this. Then they raised their voices and shouted, “Rid the earth of him! He’s not fit to live!”
As they were shouting and throwing off their cloaks and flinging dust into the air, the commander ordered that Paul be taken into the barracks. He directed that he be flogged and interrogated in order to find out why the people were shouting at him like this. As they stretched him out to flog him, Paul said to the centurion standing there, “Is it legal for you to flog a Roman citizen who hasn’t even been found guilty?”
When the centurion heard this, he went to the commander and reported it. “What are you going to do?” he asked. “This man is a Roman citizen.”
The commander went to Paul and asked, “Tell me, are you a Roman citizen?”
“Yes, I am,” he answered. Then the commander said, “I had to pay a lot of money for my citizenship.” “But I was born a citizen,” Paul replied.
Those who were about to interrogate him withdrew immediately. The commander himself was alarmed when he realized that he had put Paul, a Roman citizen, in chains.              Acts 22:17-29 (NIV)

The apostle Paul had a rather daunting calling. He starts off preaching the Gospel in the temple, but the Jews there didn’t know how to take him. Here was a guy once known as Saul- the Pharisee who had been persecuting Christians and who had not only green-lighted but also witnessed the martyrdom of Stephen (see Acts 7.)

All the sudden here goes Saul-who-became-Paul preaching the truth of Christ that he had once so vehemently opposed. This was offensive to the crowd, who probably didn’t realize Paul had such a sordid past, and their anger kindled when they realized who stood before them.

Interestingly enough, we see that Roman citizens had some advantages in Paul’s time. American jurisprudence borrows from Roman law the assumption that a person is innocent until proven guilty. Paul was not afforded the due process he should have been as a Roman citizen. Instead he was presumed guilty and summarily flogged as if he were a common street thug. Flogging was not just a smack on the hand or a whipping with a belt. The instrument, called a flagellum or flagrum, that Roman soldiers would use to flog someone in the first century looked something like this:

flagrum
There were many leather whip-like ends with heavy metal pieces on them that were designed to bruise and rip flesh.

It is a fact that Christians throughout the ages have endured unjust treatment for the sake of their faith throughout the centuries. There are many places in the world today in which Christians face persecution, torture and even death for professing Christ. The apostle Paul endured many such trials throughout his ministry journeys, yet his message stayed the same. The same Holy Spirit who sustains us in far lesser trials upheld the apostle Paul and multitudes of other believers throughout time.

The world may not always uphold our rights, whether they are natural rights or rights given by virtue of the law. Sinful humanity violating the eighth Commandment (do not bear false witness against your neighbor) is as popular as it ever was.

There was a sort of silver lining in the fact that the Jews rejected Paul and the Gospel he was preaching. While Paul’s own people rejected him, God intended for Paul to preach to non-Jews, people who had never heard of the One True God of Abraham, or of Jesus. Paul wrote many of the books of the New Testament under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit- writings that Christians use to this day for doctrine and encouragement in the faith.

It’s easy to get discouraged when our rights are trampled on, or when those who should understand us and listen to us don’t.

We don’t always understand the trials that we go through in this life. All we do know is that we can trust God even when we can’t trust people. God will find a way to preserve us and to work in and through us, by His grace, to His glory.

February 9, 2018 God is Not Silent- Psalm 50:1-6, James 2:12-14

new jerusalem

The Mighty One, God, the Lord, speaks and summons the earth from the rising of the sun to where it sets. 

From Zion, perfect in beauty, God shines forth. Our God comes and will not be silent; a fire devours before him, and around him a tempest rages. He summons the heavens above, and the earth, that he may judge his people:

“Gather to me this consecrated people, who made a covenant with me by sacrifice.”

And the heavens proclaim his righteousness, for he is a God of justice. Psalm 50:1-6 (NIV)

God will not be silent. Why do we think He is silent at times?  Do we lose sight of Him in the darkness of all the evil that threatens to prevail in this world?  Does His voice get drowned out in the vapid soundbites and machinery of modern life?

Judgment is always a squirmy topic, especially if we examine our hearts fully and truthfully. Even though we fall short and fail regularly, God’s judgment is always in our favor. For Jesus’ sake He has mercy on us and forgives us and redeems us. That isn’t to say that His judgment is always fair.  In the name of fairness we are all law-breakers and have earned the penalty of eternal death.

Our hearts cry out when we see the injustice of this world. Things happen that should not be allowed to happen- war, famine, death, decay, sorrow, loss- the list is long.  It’s easy to get angry and become disillusioned and wonder where God is in all of it.

Jesus came to earth as the one perfect sacrifice for all, but He also came to show us how to live, and to empower us to be His instruments here on earth.

If we aren’t hearing God, is it because our voices are silent? Do we affirm the goodness of God with our speech and conduct?

If we aren’t seeing God, is it because we aren’t reflecting Him in our actions?

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)

Jesus is the New Covenant. We as Jesus followers are the consecrated people He lives in and through. There is a popular “new age” saying out there that states one should “Be the change you want to see.” We should strive to follow Jesus’ example. We should want to live in a way that makes God known in the world.

Mercy and judgment may seem to be mutually exclusive. However, by God’s mercy in Christ we are not judged according to what we have earned, but we are given grace instead.

Are we merciful and gracious to others? Are we becoming the change we want to see?

God is speaking. Are we listening?

June 23, 2017- The Blessing of Persecution- Matthew 5:10-11

bullying

(Jesus said:) “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

“Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on My account.   Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you. Matthew 5:10-11 (NRSV)

As a frequent recipient of a good deal of bullying at the hands of my peers when I was a child, I have a difficult time with seeing persecution (which is a form of bullying) as a positive thing.

But persecution can be considered a blessing- if it comes about for the right reasons.

Granted, I was bullied because I was small, sickly, near sighted, strange looking, had very bad coordination, and didn’t always have the best wardrobe.  Those weren’t very good reasons for bullying, but then kids can be cruel.  Anyone different than the norm is automatically a target, and I was a particularly easy target because no one would defend me.

If anything experiencing persecution requires one to think about the reasons why.  Are some people jealous of the peace and hope that we have in Christ?  Are we sometimes targets for others’ vitriol and poor attempts at humor because we don’t exactly conform to the world’s standards?

As a Jesus follower, being persecuted or mocked for our faith may be evidence that we’re “doing it right.”

This doesn’t mean that we are supposed to sit back and be doormats, or to get thrown head first into bushes or trash cans and do nothing about it.  Self defense, and the defense of others is a basic human right.  It does mean that we are called to have God’s beautiful attitudes in the face of persecution anyway, even if we get made fun of or much worse, for living them out.

It also means that we are called to speak out against injustice.  When we know how it feels to be persecuted, we see God’s heart towards others who are living with persecution.  We are more compelled to speak out for those who cannot speak for themselves, to defend the innocent and the suffering, and to work to end the systems that make persecution possible.