Unity


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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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 

And he awoke and rebuked the wind and said to the sea, “Peace! Be still!” And the wind ceased, and there was a great calm.

Mark 4: 39

The depth and breadth of God’s Word is truly amazing to me, for the Lord never seems to stop revealing new thoughts and applications of it. Thus, I admit that I had never thought of this well-known verse from Mark’s account of Jesus’ time with us on earth in human form in the following manner. In this moment in the gospel narrative we know that Jesus is demonstrating His Godness in that He possesses power over nature, and He also provides a tangible example of the way that He did then and continues to care about and for people in this world. Additionally, there is a strong suggestion of the fact that followers of His will encounter opposition and that He will engage with those forces for our sakes. These are all good things, and they do reflect God’s character and His nature. Yet, it comes to me, even the Holy Spirit seems to be an early riser, that there is something additional on display in the words and the actions in which Jesus engages here.

For a brief moment, short and transitory as it is, Jesus commands nature to return to God’s creation design intent. The natural world was constructed as a peaceful place where everything functioned perfectly and wherein the elements such as wind, water, fire, and rain were to be productive and supportive of the thriving of all of life. All of this, every aspect of nature, has been damaged and disturbed by the effects of sin. Those disobedient and rebellious acts that the first people chose to do have had a profound impact on the way that this world operates, and none of that is for the good. So, on that day and in that boat upon the sea, Jesus took back a piece of this world from Satan’s evil grip, and He set it right for the benefit of a few people and as an example of something much bigger by way of future promise and also in the form of setting out a part of His call and commission for His followers.

There is no question that God has promised that there will come a time when Jesus will again walk upon this earth. This will be a point in history when all of creation will be restored to the glory of God’s design. There will no longer be any grief and death, and all of the universe will exist in a form of harmonious peace. This is God’s promise, and it establishes a form of hope for all of us as we follow Christ in this troubled world. Yet, Jesus seldom left things with future hope as His only teaching point. It seems to me that He also wants us to actively engage with the created world with redemption and restoration in mind. People continue to do real harm to the place where we dwell, and we do this with little regard for the gifts that God has given to us by way of the resources in the earth and seas or that are contained in the atmosphere that envelopes us. I believe that Christ desires for us to join Him in rebuking the corruption that sin has produced on and in nature. He also wants us to care for what He has given to us for the sake of our thriving. Until Jesus returns, we are, in fact, His hands and His voice to be used for promoting peace upon this earth, even peace in the natural world.

So Jesus also suffered outside the gate in order to sanctify the people through his own blood. Therefor let us go to him outside the camp and bear the reproach he endured.

Hebrews 13: 12, 13

It is amazing the difference that a few feet of distance can make. When the Romans wanted to utilize their ultimate form of torture and public humiliation by way of crucifixion to execute a criminal in Jerusalem, they usually took the convicted person outside of the gates of the city proper in order to carry out that sentence. This process of distancing the crucifixion from the holy city provided a note of acceptability to this barbaric act; so, it kept the temple leaders contented with the appearance of honoring the sacredness of the Jewish capitol city. Yet, in reality, there was nothing honoring or truly thoughtful in the way that a crucifixion was carried out. It was brutal in every aspect of its contemplation and in carrying out its outcome. People died a slow, gruesomely painful, and very public death on those crosses. Their shame was displayed for all of the community to see; yet, the convicted person was taken away and placed outside of the boundary of that same community and its care.

Jesus knew what He was getting into when it came time for Him to go to Jerusalem for that final Passover feast. The Father sent Jesus to a place where confrontation with the leadership of the Jewish temple was inevitable, and Jesus did everything that the Lord’s prophets had set out that the Messiah would do in that time and place. These actions in conjunction with all of the rest of the Lord’s words and deeds that were undertaken while engaging in His short term of public ministry assured that He would be the primary target of the anger and the jealousy that was boiling up in the hearts of those supposedly righteous men. Jesus had already separated Himself from the direction that those in power in His world had taken. He brought love and grace to tortured souls where they tendered control and oppression. Jesus healed the sick and the injured as they complained about the untimely nature of such acts. Jesus provided the heavenly wealth of forgiveness of sin while the religious and governmental leaders sought to drain the threadbare cupboards of those same poor people. 

We live in a world where the safest place to dwell might seem to be found in the center of our cities. At least that safe spot is often found when we move in concert with the culture of our community and as we embrace the tone of its discourse. Yet, Jesus did not do this. He confronted that same form of powerful commentary with the truth that comes from before time and that brings low the mighty and that elevates the oppressed. In our day, we can stand upon that same eternal truth in the form of God’s Word, and this is exactly what followers of Christ should be doing on a daily basis. We are to be a people who deliberately move to a place of dissonance with the tone and the content of our world’s common language when it differs with God’s call to promote peace, to love with generosity, and to provide justice to all people. As we do this, we do move to stand in a place with Jesus that is outside of the safety and the security of the gates of our cultural city. However, in making this journey of faith, we are truly aligning ourselves with Jesus’ heart and will, and we are standing on the holy ground that was consecrated by Christ’s blood of redemption.

“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.  

The LORD is good to those who wait for him,

   to the soul who seeks him.

Lamentations 3: 25

What is so hard about waiting? Patience in times of stress or distress is just not the sort of thing that most of us a wired to engage in, and waiting is hard to do even under ideal conditions. We want answers or we desire relief from the pain, and taking a long view on the presence of these virtues is not something that most of us do not enjoy. Yet, the Lord sees all of human history. He knows its beginning moment, and He is fully in touch with the hour that it all will be transformed back into its created perfection. There is no instant in between that catches Him by surprise. This can be hard to grasp for us, and it can also be difficult to comprehend how the God of grace, mercy, and love can still allow so much hardship, pain, and suffering to exist in an environment that He sees so fully.

For I am convinced that the Lord has the capability, capacity, and power to engage with and to handle any situation or circumstance that He might so choose to do. So, the presence of brokenness in our world is not the result of God’s weakness or of His disengagement or distance from us and from our reality. Instead, the Lord does allow the natural course of life on earth to follow where we have chosen to take it. It was our ancestors that brought about the rejection of God’s perfection, and we are equally involved in perpetuating this process of living outside of God’s will. Still, He seeks after each of us, and He pours out grace and provides the means of redemption for any of us that accept God’s gift of His Son. Even Jesus and the presence of His Spirit with us does not grant immunity to the broken nature of our world, but He does show us the truth of eternity and provide its hope to us even in the midst of our hardest days and darkest hours.

So, the Lord asks us to wait on Him. We can trust in the salvation for our souls that Christ provides, and we can have faith in the reality of a glory that exceeds anything that can be experienced upon this earth. Thus, these moments spent in turmoil and anguished anticipation are nothing more than a brief pause in the journey that this faith in Christ takes us upon. When the place where we are residing in life turns hard and our heart is made heavy by the burden that is placed upon us by the cares of the day, we can turn to the Lord with whatever strength and attention that we can muster up in that time, and we can rest assured that our prayers are heard, that God’s Word will provide wisdom and guidance for that time and place, and that the body of faith will be a refuge of care and companionship through the hours that creep along before the dawn of a new day. Thus, this form of waiting can, in fact, be some of the richest time with the Lord that we will ever experience in this life.

For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weakness, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, but without sin.

Hebrews 4: 15

Let’s face it, there are days when I am not very strong. I don’t mean sore muscles or being weary from the drain of life’s activities, and I am not referring to emotional tiredness, either. There are just times in life when temptations of various kinds are more real than is the will to turn away from them. This is a challenging aspect of living in the skin that God has provided to me as a dwelling place for my heart, mind, and soul, and these are not times that make me feel especially good about myself when I look at what I am thinking and doing from the perspective of the cross that Christ allowed Himself to occupy for my sake. This contrast between my depravity and Christ’s holy yet bloodied presence makes me want to go away and hide in a dark corner with my shame and guilt covering me.

However I may feel about these things and in these dark hours of my soul, Christ calls to me to come out and to engage with Him in the truth of His gospel of love, grace, and redemption. My self-imposed cave of regrets is not the place where my redeemed soul is supposed to reside. My sinfulness does have consequences, and there is always human fallout to deal with, but isolation and separation are not the answers that Christ provides to me. Christ knows the intensity of the challenge that life in this world of brokenness and temptation provides as He experienced life in this place to its fullest without succumbing to those same temptations. Additionally, there is nothing that we can do or any place that we can journey that will take us beyond the grace and the forgiveness of the cross of Christ. Our Lord’s blood is more than adequate to cover any sin that we can commit.

Jesus wants each of us to live fully in His presence. He also desires for us to live out His calling to be people that proclaim the eternal glory of God in every aspect of our lives. We cannot do this if we allow our times of weakness to overcome Christ’s mission for our lives. However, we are directed by God to be people that recognize the destructive nature of sin and who, therefor, turn to God in repentance and with a desire to open up our areas of weakness to the restorative work of the Spirit. Sin does not need to win in this contest for our loyalty, for, in Christ, it has already lost the battle for the soul. Thus, our sins have been forgiven on His cross, we are granted mercy and grace by Christ, and His Spirit works within us to strengthen our resolve to live as holy and righteous people. As the writer of Hebrews went on to say,

“Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.” Hebrews 4: 16 

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