Grace


I will turn your feasts into mourning

   and all your songs into lamentation;

I will bring sackcloth on every waist

   and baldness on every head;

I will make it like the mourning for an only son

   and the end of it like a bitter day.

Amos 8: 10

It seems to me that God actually enjoys a good party. He wants His people to feel joy and to express it through laughter and in gathering together to celebrate the faithfulness and the goodness that the Lord has poured out upon them. I think that this appreciation for a celebratory spirit in people is a part of why God called upon His people, the Israelites to plan and schedule several feasts and festivals as specific occasions when they would gather to remember all that God had done for them and to enter into acts of atonement for their sins and ones that sought to solicit the Lord’s guidance and direction for the future. Although for the most part we do not adhere to the same formal schedule of special events, people still do celebrate and remember that which is good in our world at specific times on our calendars. To this day, we are a people who enjoy the goodness with which the Lord has graced us.

Despite God’s desire for His people to celebrate His presence with them, He informed them through the words of the prophet Amos that their actions would lead Him to turn those festivals into wakes. Their sinfulness was leading them into destruction, and their disobedience to God’s will for them to be honest and just people was forcing the Lord to withdraw His protections from their land. This would be a drastic step on the Lord’s part, and He was not quick to take such a radical action. God would have preferred to see the Israelites recognize their sins, repent of them, and turn to doing the Lord’s will than to bring about punishment in the form of destruction, death, and captivity at the hands of another nation. Yet, that is what happened.

It seems to me that there are lessons for us to learn from what happened so long ago in Israel. None of us today live in a nation that was formed by God’s hand with the same specific intent as was Israel. That is to be a country that was governed and ruled by God’s Word alone. That sort of thing was, in reality, an example of why we needed Jesus. Israel’s failure as a holy kingdom was writ large across the history of the world. Jesus brought with Him an entirely new concept of nation under God’s authority that no longer has boundaries that can be drawn upon maps or be governed by people. Still, the nations of this earth are granted their existence by God, and they are intended to bring order to the world’s chaos and to promote justice for all people. These human-crafted and God ordained entities operate under a mandate to be peacemakers in the world. So, it seems to me that the warnings that were set out for Israel have pertinence to us today. We must be people who live honestly, promote justice, and seek to be peacemakers, or we too may find that all of our party décor will become blackened and our festivities will be converted to times of mournful wailing.

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The friendship of the LORD is for those who fear him,

   and he makes known to them his covenant.

Psalm 25: 14

Friendship is a very special thing. It is also rather rare, for most people do not know all that many really close friends during the course of their lives. If there are a few people that can be reflected upon from the past and counted upon in the present to always be there when life’s events come along, then that person has been fortunate. A friend is someone who is in this journey of living without reservation or restriction. That is why most of the people that we would call friends would be more suitably defined as close acquaintances than they are truly deep friends. Friends know as no one else can, and they are people that can be counted upon to tell us the truth without considering the cost, and we can know that they will still love us even when we are not so lovely, ourselves.

The idea that God could be considered as a friend may strike some of you as difficult to imagine, for I admit that It is hard for me to get my hands around that concept. Yet, David was able to do this very thing. He describes a relationship wherein God knows David well and in which the Lord shows Himself to David, too. The fear that is referenced here is a form of respect and reverence that means that when God speaks, David listens. Where the Lord has set out standards for living and gives guidance for the way that people should love and care for each other, David seeks to go about his day in a manner that reflects God’s desired rules of life. As David walked through his days in this close friendship relationship with God, the Lord demonstrated and explained the truth of the extraordinary depth and breadth of His promised commitment to love, care for, and protect the souls of His people. People like David, himself. 

This same form of friendship with God can be ours as well. Following the Lord with all of our heart, mind, and strength also places each of us in a place where God’s deeper nature is revealed and wherein the Lord guides us into living out the details of His will. This journey of faith is not necessarily an easy one. If we look closely at David’s story, that becomes very clear, for he had many challenging and difficult times in his long friendship with the Lord. Still, God was faithful and true to His promises to David. There were times when David was lonely or living in a form of exile, but he was never alone as God was always present by his side and was tangibly so in the way that He prepared the way for David to travel forward. We, too, can know God in this manner of friend. As we talk over life and its joys, burdens, and challenges with God, this prayer becomes the language of intimates. Reading God’s Word brings the Lord’s words of living truth to bear upon all that life throws at us, and living out each day as a person that is dedicated to following the leading of the Spirit, brings that intimate friendship with God into the present reality where we each dwell. 

Whoever is slow to anger has great understanding,

   but he who has a hasty temper exalts a fool.

Proverbs 14: 29

Our culture’s ultimate source of knowledge, Wikipedia, defines anger in this manner,

“The emotion anger, also known as wrath orrage, is an intense emotional state. It involves a strong uncomfortable and hostile response to a perceived provocation, hurt or threat.”

Well, I agree with this except that it seems as if the part about provocation, hurt, or threat no longer applies, for people today become demonstrably wrathful without any sort of real provocation beyond what should produce mild irritation or slight annoyance. Today anger is a tool that is used to overwhelm, to oppress, and to defeat others. Although the use of this powerful emotion in this manner is prevalent today, I submit for consideration that it has always been employed in a similar manner. The writer of this proverb was speaking about something that was both cultural observation and probably personal experience. Almost all people from the dawn of creation have given in to anger’s ugliness and destructive presence.

Yet, that is not how it needs to be. There is another way to engage with people, even with people who really do tend to cause our blood to boil. Jesus certainly felt anger at the way that people were corrupting their worship of God and at the oppressive actions of those in power. God has expressed His anger at the disobedience and selfishness of people. Throughout the long history of Christ’s church, our ongoing disregard for God’s call to live in a just, loving, and other-focused manner has caused a form of anger to well up in numerous righteous followers of Christ. God’s anger, whether displayed by Him or by Jesus is tempered by a desire to bring about redemption and reconciliation to God’s way of truth and righteousness. Thus, the Lord demonstrates His understanding of the people with whom He is angry and with the circumstances that have caused their sinful actions. The Lord knows each of us as an individual, and He enters into our lives with our specific and personal identities in view even when He is displeased with what we are thinking, saying, and doing.

If we truly desire to break the distressing cycle of angry engagement in our world today, we can do nothing less than to follow our Lord in seeking to understand where others are coming from when they cause strong negativity to arise in us. We must seek to know them as people and to recognize that even the most troubling of personalities bears the touch of the Creator’s hand in who they are and in how they function. That does not mean that all actions and words are acceptable or that we should allow all of them to exist without comment, response, or rebuke. The righteous, the loving, and the God-honoring thing to do is often otherwise. Yet, even the sternest of responses needs to be tempered by grace, redemptive love, and a form of understanding that comes by and through the Spirit. When we live in this manner by abandoning the destructive tactics of our world, we have chosen to follow Christ in a manner much like the one that He taught us in the seventh beatitude,

“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.” Matthew 5: 9 

For we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty. For when he received honor and glory from God the Father, and the voice was borne to him by the Majestic Glory, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased,” we ourselves heard this very voice borne from heaven, for we were with him on the holy mountain.

2 Peter 1: 16-18

We live in a time in world history where there is a striking absence of truly authoritative leadership. We are surrounded by people that wield power and that hold out their wisdom as if it were of supreme value, but the test of truth calls the lie in all of these claims. The voices that demand our loyalty and that attempt to impose their wills upon our nations are speaking out of the shallow depths of their own human reason as they too frequently make demands that are not in any way related to God’s Word of truth and life. This sort of worldly authority is, in fact, fueled by arrogance, and it draws far too many people into its enticing wasp trap of Spirit quenching death.

Peter was present when the one and the only, the singular, Lord God of the Universe proclaimed that Jesus was truly His Son. So, at that time, God was also proclaiming the conveyance of authority to rule over all of the earth as its sole rightful King. Jesus retains the right to pronounce judgement upon all that transpires in our world, and through His Spirit, He also provides all of the wisdom and counsel that we need in order to live as godly people. That is, the Spirit guides us into thinking and acting in a manner that will please God and that will bring the Kingdom of God into view in our world. When we are following Christ justice, mercy, peacemaking, and love for all people prevail. As people in positions of authority submit to Christ, they can do nothing other than promote these same well-articulated Godly characteristics.

As God’s character and nature are seldom seen in the words and the actions of many of our world’s leaders, one must surely question whether these people are actually submitted to Christ. For the vast majority of us, those who elect leaders and whose voice they should desire to hear, we should be questioning the sorts of opinions that we express to our elected rulers as we should also carefully consider the Christ-likeness of those for whom we vote. For, if Christ was truly proclaimed to be King and was so granted the authority to rule over this world, as attested to by Peter, then it is His heart-felt proclamation of grace and love for our neighbors that must prevail in the outworking of all of our earthly governance. There is no authority on earth that is superior to Jesus, and there is no rule of law that exceeds the truth of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. 

For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people.

Titus 2: 11 

There was this rather simple thought that seemed to be just stuck in my mind when I got up this morning; It is one of those ideas that comes out of the fog of sleep and that begins to take on shape as the brain cells slowly start to warm up to their tasks. It is this, I try too hard to make what is designed to be simple and easily understood really complicated and obscure, and I am not even slightly alone in doing this. Now, I admit that this is something that I do in a lot of areas of my life; I do have an analytical personality, you know; thus, thinking through, over, and all around something is normal. This is different; this gets in the way of something much more important. 

My waking thought for today was this; God makes relationship with Him very simple, I tend to make it truly difficult. The Lord gives me an easily understood message to share with others; I turn it into a graduate-level seminary coarse. God opens His arms to everyone without reservation or hesitation; I create a list of qualifications and set up a screening system for access to Him. God loves all with the absolute love of that elusively perfect Father; I don’t even love myself all that well; even more so, I struggle with loving others. 

Thus, what is it that God has saved me from? He has saved me from the isolation that I would naturally create as my world; He has given me Himself as a gift beyond imagining, and He continually shows me how to live in the completeness of His overwhelming love. All of the thought and the consideration about who God is and of how He works and relates is fine; He created and empowers my mind; yet, the Lord still wants me to stay focused on the simplicity of His truth and on the accessibility of His saving grace. 

There is nothing that I can speak or write; no ritual, rite, or sacrament that I can perform; and none of my actions or works of my hands do anything to bring me or anyone else closer to God if they are not done out of love for Him and if they are not filled with His love for people. The singular thought on my mind this morning is that God graciously loves me, and He wants me to share that love with others without reservation, condition, or hesitation. Christ is much more interested in the relationship, and we can let Him worry about the details later.

Let endurance have its perfect result, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.

James 1: 4

Endurance is a word that brings out images of things that aren’t always so pleasant. These include copious amounts of sweat, long hours devoted to self torture, studying through the night in order to stuff data that is too big for my brain into its corners, and collapsing to the ground in a painful face plant when the legs are long past nonfunctional. Endurance is just not something that most humans find all that attractive. Most of us just don’t do it very well. We do not endure to the very end.

Yet, endure is what God has done with us, and endurance is what Christ needed to make it to the end in order to secure my place in God’s kingdom. Despite the insults, the indifference, and the failure that we people bring to the relationship, God continues to love everyone, to care about all of our needs, and He will stick with us until the very end of all that we are dealing with. God entered into a promise, a covenant, with us, and He does finish the course to its completion. In the process, He invites us to decide to join in and rely on His strength, wisdom, and encouragement to finish well ourselves. 

Regardless of what this day holds, the Lord has a plan for it. He does ask us to trust Him that this is true, and He does want us to keep going even when the weight of our concerns and cares seems beyond our capacity to hold up. There is victory to be found in those final, painful steps. There is glory to be gained by crossing the finish line as we realize that the strength to get there actually belongs to the Lord and is also supplied by and through His Spirit. It is then, when the only strength that I have belongs to the Lord, that I understand that each step I take in trust is a step deeper into the will of my Savior.

“For behold, I will raise up against you a nation,

   O house of Israel,” declares the LORD, the God of hosts;

“and they shall oppress you from Lebo-hamath

   to the Brook of the Arabah.”

Amos 6: 14

God is the perfect example of the engaged and loving parent and also of a truly good friend. He is willing to enter into those hard conversations and deal with the issues that everyone else tries to avoid. This can be very unpleasant, and it can lead to relational tensions that are monumental in their scale. However, the Lord is fully aware of the fact that we all sin and fall far short of the righteousness that God’s standards set out for us to follow. He recognizes with equal clarity that these times and situations of engaging in the selfishness of sin are harmful to us and to the world around us if they are left unchecked. Departing from God’s path in small ways can start people along a course that grows ever further off track to the point that recovery becomes almost impossible. We can get to a place in our journey of life where there are no visible points of reference left to sight and to turn toward.

The Lord does not want to see any of His people end up on the far side of the world with no means of finding our way home again. So, He intervenes in our lives. This is what He is promising to do in the days of the prophet Amos. At the time when Amos wrote out these words, the Lord was still waiting upon the repentance of His people in Israel and Judah. Now, God was certainly aware of the fact that they would not listen to these pleas, and Amos was not the only human voice that the Lord inspired to speak out about the dangers of continuing to follow their own sinful ways. Still, stubborn is stubborn, and self-serving people can be very set in the path that they have chosen to take. We know that both of these Hebrew nations would be overthrown and the people taken from their homes into captivity and slavery in a foreign land. Sometimes, harsh measures are needed in order to bring wandering people back into relationship with God.

Are we in our world today in a place where this sort of extreme measure is the only thing left for God to do in order to get us to turn away from our self-determined journey and fall upon our knees in repentance before the Lord? I am not a prophet, and God has certainly not provided me with an image of His future plans or of the details of the way that He will work out His promise of redemption for our world. I do know that the Lord has a plan for the restoration of the purity and the glory of His original creative handiwork upon the earth. I believe that I am correct when I look around and see the angry, violent, and unloving nature of so much of what is happening upon the face of our globe that God is more than displeased with it all. For I am convinced that God’s heart is breaking and that His patience must be running out at the sight of our depravity and lack of just treatment of each other. So, the engaged father and the good friend that is the Lord is not likely to withhold His judgement for much longer. It is time for people who know Christ to speak up, to act boldly in love, and to become well known in our world as people who proclaim the truth of the gospel of Christ in order to bring a foretaste of the Lord’s redemptive work into contact with the world that we touch.  

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