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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I know your works. Behold, I have set before you an open door, which no one is able to shut. I know you have little power, and yet you have kept my word and have not denied my name.

Revelation 3: 8

If we think that the world that we live in is antagonistic toward our faith in Christ, perhaps we should consider the one that this church at Philadelphia occupies. Whatever we face might start looking very tame and civil in comparison. Still, without regard to the nature of our times verses those that are to come in the future, there is something truly important to consider and to hold onto for all of us in the church of Christ today. These people were lifted up as examples of what it means to hold onto their faith as they endure all that the world throws at them and continue to serve Christ in all that He calls upon them to be and to do. This will not be easy for them, and it is certainly not simple or easy for us either.

In fact, the nature of the times that we are a part of is such that I think many Christians today do resonate with the fact that we feel powerless. It seems as if the voice of love and of reason that we have learned to utilize as an imitation of the manner and the tone that Christ would have us use to engage with others is no longer useful or even considered to be worthy of hearing. These are days when shouting with the force of a hail storm has been deemed to be the only communication style that will be heard. Yet, no one grants others the respect that is necessary to actually hear what is being said. In fact, very few people today care about what others have to say or would grant the possibility that a differing opinion could possibly be right. This appears to be the case when the oppositional view point is expressed by people on their own, and it is equally true when the other ideas are coming straight out of God’s Word. 

Still, Christ tells us to not lose heart in the face of this violent storm that is the nature of these days. Instead, we are to continue to provide a counter narrative to the one with which our world is filled, for Christ desires for His people to stay steadfast in speaking the truth of God’s Word while also loving the people that we encounter. This might be easy to say, but it is not so simple to do. This requires that we be people of patience who stay true to Christ’s calling to be peacemakers in our world and to be agents for redemption in our relationships. We are to continue to proclaim Christ as the only eternal answer to all that is broken, painful, and lost in our world, and we are to refuse to respond to this world’s call to isolate ourselves from people who are different or who might cost us something real to love and to care for. The door to eternity stands open before us as dose the door to Christ’s cross of redemptive sacrifice. Thus, the path to that desired eternal rest leads straight into the teeth of the storm that is our world as our Lord calls upon His people to remain true to serving Him in His strength with all that we have to give. 

For the LORD gives wisdom;

   from his mouth come knowledge and understanding;

he stores up sound wisdom for the upright;

   he is a shield to those who walk in integrity.

Proverbs 2: 6, 7

There are words all around us. They are shouted out in the morning, and they are whispered into the dreams of the night. Many people attempt to influence others into thinking in a certain manner by using skill with expression or through the pouring out of an overwhelming volume of sound and its accompanying fury. Yet, in all of this flood of thoughts, opinions, and concepts, there are only a few words that are spoken from a reliable source, and there is only one ultimate author that should be given complete acceptance and listened to with undivided attention. For in all of the aggregate information and influence that is out and around us in our world, only the words that God has set forth and ordained as His are absolutely thrust worthy, and come to us with the certainty to inform our journey through life in a manner that is both good for us and that brings healing to the hurt places in our world.

People who realize this eternal truth and who therefor seek after God’s Word with consistency and with diligence are to be sought after. They are aware of the sorts of wise things that are good and useful in living out each day as people who desire to love others well, to care about justice, and to hold up righteousness as the standard to follow through all of life. So, these are people to follow, and these are people to draw near to when we need understanding and guidance regarding the challenges and the struggles that we are facing. All of this sounds so serious and heavy; yet, there is great humor to be found in traveling in the presence of the Lord. He sees the irony and the curious silliness of life in a manner that only one who is very close to the subjects at hand could view them. So too does the person who dwells in the presence of the Creator hold a special place in his heart and mind for all that is light and humorous that comes about during these long and too often arduous days.

God’s wisdom is to be sought after. It is found in His Word and illuminated by His Spirit. These are the words that cut through the distractions and the untruths that are so prevalent in the air that we breath in our world. The Word of God provides the foundation from which all other thoughts, ideas, and concepts can be judged and evaluated as to their validity and usefulness in providing guidance for us. Thus, people who hold God’s Word as sacred and who search its depths as their source of wisdom and encouragement are to be valued and sought after. These are women and men who do dwell in the presence of the holy, and they are people who understand that strength of character is a gift that comes from the Lord and that love is the Godly characteristic that prevails in the face of all other forces and factors that might come at us during the day. People who so value the word of life that comes straight from the mouth of the Creator are to be prized, and their wisdom, grace, love, and humor are valuable beyond all measuring. 

Dedicated to Mark M. upon entering the next phase in service to our Lord.  

Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth.

2 Timothy 2: 15

Almost everyone uses tools as a part of the what we do during the course of a day. For some, there is a specialized set that are designed to equip their operator with what is required by the task at hand. These implements may be a mechanic’s wrenches and gauges or they might be the scalpels, forceps, and suture needles of a surgeon. Most of us also use words and the language that is formed up out of them in various ways as we go about doing the tasks that we have been called upon to perform by God and by society. This is the area of concern that Paul is discussing with Timothy and with us. The Apostle cares about the way that we express and describe our faith in Christ, and as we go about the ever-present task of speaking about Christ, Paul makes it clear that God’s Word is something that is to be taken seriously and that it is to be handled with care and with respect.

God did many remarkable things in the process of inspiring and empowering the creation of His Word. It is a unique document in all of the history of this world, for it spans an enormous range of time, has multitudes of authors, was written in several languages, and represents a full range of humanity’s experience of living on earth as people that are called upon by God to dwell here as His chosen care takers and workers in the various and variable fields that have been provided to us to cultivate over the course of those centuries of history. Truth is contained in those pages, and the truth that is present there is one that leads people out of death and into life. This real and ever-applicable divine truth speaks to all occasions and to all situations that have ever presented themselves to people and to our societies. God’s truth informs us of His love, justice, grace, mercy, and holiness in a manner that we can seek to live out these holy characteristics in our lives.

So, do not be mistaken in this, if a person is a follower of Christ, then that person is also called by God to be a worker for the sake of the glory of Christ’s name and in the various fields of God’s kingdom here and now on earth. In order to do this work most effectively, we need to be equipped with the tools of our trade in Christ, and these are the spoken words of the gospel of Christ and the lived out language of love, service, and care for others that is Christ’s model. Paul is charging us with the responsibility to be careful and wise workers, ones that stay true to God’s Word and that follow the leading of the Spirit rather than the new revelations that people are continually attempting to set forth as revised and better understanding of God’s will. God’s Word is not fragile, it will not be broken by even the roughest of workers, and it will endure until the end of days when Christ, Himself, is again upon this earth in the flesh. So, we who are called to labor for the gospel in the name of Christ, can be confident in taking up that word of truth and in allowing it to guide all that we think, do, and say.        

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: 2 

We live on the inside of a large, ever present mold, and there are pressures being exerted upon everyone to manipulate and to form us into a replica of that shaping form. Some of its contours are easy to accept and others are hard and sharp-edged. The pressure that is placed upon us that is intended to cause us to fit into the configuration that the owner of the mold desires can be mild but it does get ramped up to the point of being extreme at times. The presence of these shaping forces is something that never leaves us in this life; however, we do get to make some choices in these matters. We can accept certain influences as we can also reject others. So, we can seek out the master of the mold that we would like to have influencing the life that we will live, and we can choose to submit to the type of master that we believe will take us in the right and true direction.

This choice of masters is something that God has given to us. He desires for us to choose Him and to seek after His influence and instruction in all matters, but God wants for each of us to do these things freely and without compulsion. He risks granting us the freedom to make these decisions on our own, but He does not leave us without advice or counsel to assist us in determining what is right, just, good, and holy in our world. The Lord does allow us to decide for ourselves to select or to reject those Godly influences. This is a type of consideration that we are faced with at a high level as we consider whether to accept Christ as Savior and Lord of our lives, and we continue to encounter these decision points throughout every day that we are alive when we need to choose to live in a manner that is fully submitted to Christ and to God’s Word or to travel along a different path in some aspects of life. Every one of these decisions has an influence upon the form, the substance, and the shape of the life that I will live from this day forward.

Yet, even wrong turns and surrender to the pressures that the world places upon a person is not without its value and its worth in the process of living a life that is Godly, righteous, and valuable within God’s kingdom on earth. The Lord is redemptive in His character and nature. He seeks to retrieve our lost moments, hours, days, and years by granting to each of us a grace that is infinite in its mercy and unceasing in its capacity to love us. God follows us wherever we may go, He calls us into the presence of His word of life, and He speaks renewal and new life into any and all of our dark and hurting places. As we submit to Christ and seek out His will, He applies the sort of pressure that we require to remake each of us into people who take on a shape and a form that is beautiful in God’s eyes and that lives in a manner that brings the grace, hope, and love of Christ into the lives of others. With or without Christ we are being formed and shaped every day, but in Christ, the form that we acquire is one that is radiant with His glory and that is made beautiful by the love that He pours into us and that we can then grant to the world where we live.   

I appeal to you therefor, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.

Romans 12: 1

When I consider the ideas of worship and sacrifice, the first thoughts that come to mind tend to be about various forms of Old Testament practices and are generally framed in the context of the temple in Jerusalem. So, they are a part of the rich history of faith that God has laid out for us in His word, but they are significantly disconnected from my world and from this day, and are generally outside of the realm of the experience of the church that I know. So, it is with a sort of eye-opening jolt, like cold-water thrown into my face, that I realize how wrong I am about the contemporary reality of what God actually desires from me and for His church.

In that ancient temple setting, there were no live sacrifices, unless you think in terms of the grain as still being alive before it was burned; yet, even it had been severed from its roots. In fact, the manner and the procedure by which the animals were put to death was an important aspect of the sacrificial system. Yet today, God wants the sacrifices to be alive; in fact, He wants them to be living so that the process of life is on-going and onward developing in light of the act of sacrifice, itself. This is an act of mercy and of grace on the part of the Lord. For He finds that His people, in Christ, are wholly and fully clean, pure and thus acceptable in His sight. If this were not so, then we would not be sacrifices that are suitable to be offered up to God. However, Christ makes us such people, and His declaration of our worthiness allows for us to go directly and personally before God as we offer up the service of our lives to Him.

This is the true heart of worship as we can know it today. Although the expression of our gathered worship can be beautiful and powerful in its sweet lyric and compelling exhortation of the word, any of these practices and all of this ceremony are secondary to the central point and purpose of that worship. God desires for us to each give up our lives in full to Him. He also wants His church as a corporate or a gathered entity to do the same thing. The Lord does not delight in ritual or in inwardly focused experiences; rather, His heart is set on seeing His people and His church drink deeply from the Word of Life and take the vitality that flows out of that source with us into the world where we live so that the truth of the Gospel of Christ would be proclaimed in words and in lived out faith in every corner of the universe. In Christ, there is no price that is too great to pay for the sake of the souls of others, and with Christ, each and every sacrifice that we make is an act of profoundly sweet worship given to God. 

Then he said to them, “Go your way. Eat the fat and drink sweet wine and send portions to anyone who has nothing ready, for this day is holy to our Lord. And do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.”

Nehemiah 8: 10

At certain times it is natural to feel contradictory emotions. This is one of those times for the people of Israel. As Nehemiah, Ezra, and the priests were going among them and reading God’s Word of the Law to them, they were struggling greatly. They had much to be thankful for in that the wall that surrounded Jerusalem had been rebuilt and their city was being restored to its former greatness. They had returned to their homeland from exile, and the throngs were gathered in order to celebrate all that God had done for them and to give thanks to the Lord. As God’s Word was read, they heard the story of how God had been faithful to His people throughout all of history. They were given the details of the Lord’s call to holiness and to righteous living, and they were also struck by the stark contrast between God’s faithfulness to them and their sinful departure from His way of truth and life.

It was surely painful for them to face into the reality of how they had acted in response to all that God had done for them. The very ground that they were standing upon was something that God had provided for them. The great work of rebuilding that had just been finished was necessary because they had not remained true to God’s way of living and had allowed the ruin of rebellion against God to overtake their world. The Word of Truth must have been convicting to them, and their hearts were overcome with the need for repentance. Yet, they were being called out into a joyous celebration, for this was a time for a festival of thanksgiving and singing of songs of praise to the Lord. So, Nehemiah calls upon the people to enter into the party. They were to do things that indicated that their hearts were at peace and that their minds were filled with expressions of thanksgiving for all that the Lord had done and hope for where they were headed as a nation and in each of their lives. They felt sorrow, regret, and a need for repentance, and the Lord accepted all of that and called them into a heart-deep attitude of resting upon His grace and understanding that the Lord finds great joy in the return of His people to Him.

Very similar things are true for us today as well. We neglect our walls of truth and holiness. We leave God’s righteous way in order to seek out our own path through life, and the results of all of this can be just as troubling and even similarly disastrous as departing from the Lord’s will and way was for the Israelites. Christ calls upon us to return to Him, and He leads us into doing His work of restoration and rebuilding in our own lives. With grace and mercy He takes us back into the center of God’s will for the life that He has gifted to each of us. And just as it did for the people gathered in Jerusalem with Nehemiah and Ezra, God’s Word presents us with the full scope of His unceasing faithfulness to His promises to us and depicts our need for repentance for each of us in such a stark and powerful manner that it is hard to be anything other than sorrowful in the light of this revealed truth. Yet, Christ tells us to enter into the celebration and to be joyful in the presence of the Lord. These times of returning and of rebuilding bring joy to God’s heart, and His joy is cause for us to join with the Lord and to accept His gift of redemption that comes complete with His provision of the strength that we will need to move forward with the work to which Christ is calling us to engage.