Archives for August 2015

Psalm 99; Jeremiah 12:1–13:19; 2 Thessalonians 3:6–18

Psalm 99: This psalm opens with the scene of God upon his throne and all the world–not just the Jews–doing fearful obeisance: “The Lord reigns–peoples tremble.” (1) The throne is flanked by cherubim, which are fearsome winged lions with human faces, not the sweet angels we see in painting. Our psalmist makes sure that we understand once again that while “the Lord is great in Zion,” he is also “exalted over all the peoples,” (2).

The song of worship names four qualities of God: “Great and fearful,/ He is holy./ And with a King’s strength He loves justice.” (3, 4a) God is great and incites fear. God is holy, i.e., holy in the sense of set apart. God is is not an extension of our imagination, but is outside our entire experience. OK, these are the normal qualities of God that we talk about. But the fourth–“He loves justice”–reminds us once again that the underlying theme of God in the OT is that God demands justice–not only to himself, but that we provide justice to our fellow human beings.

God is the source of justice: “You firmly founded righteousness,/ judgement and justice in Jacob You made.” Too often we think of the OT God as just being arbitrarily angry, but in reality, God wants only justice on the earth. As we see in the prophets, God’s anger is mixed with frustration and ultimately compassion. God is a “forbearing God…yet an avenger of their misdeeds.” (8) We should be just as angry as God at the rampant injustice that corrupts the world.

The last half of the psalm names the famous leaders of Israel: Moses, Aaron, Samuel (6) who obeyed God and “called to the Lord and He answered them.” Not only does God speak to them but they are the exemplars who followed the laws that are intended to bring justice to all: “They kept His precepts and the statute He gave them.” (7) Which is why we are to do the same and when we worship, we are to “Exalt the Lord our God.” (9)

Jeremiah 12:1–13:19: Jeremiah poses the eternal question to God. Exactly the same question we ask today: “Why does the way of the guilty prosper?/ Why do all who are treacherous thrive?” (12:2) God answers Jeremiah, warning him that “even your kinsfolk and your own family,/even they have dealt treacherously with you;…do not believe them,/ though they speak friendly words to you.” (12:6) Then, in a remarkably wistful voice, God describes how the people he loves have abandoned him and in one of the saddest verses in the Bible, says, “I have given the beloved of my heart/ into the hands of her enemies.” (12:7)

Then, he describes the sins of the people he loves, telling how “Many shepherds have destroyed my vineyard,/ they have trampled down my portion,” (12:10) and “They have made it a desolation;” (12:11). This speech about the actual and symbolic destruction ends on a note of the futility describing what happens when we abandon God: “They have sown wheat and have reaped thorns,/ they have tired themselves out but profit nothing.” (12:13) 

We then encounter a strange metaphor. God then tells Jeremiah to go buy a new loincloth, which I assume is underwear, and hide it in a cleft of a rock along the Euphrates river. He leaves it there a long tome, eventually going back and retrieving it, but it is ruined. God tells him, “Just so I will ruin the pride of Judah and the great pride of Jerusalem. This evil people, who refuse to hear my words, who stubbornly follow their own will and have gone after other gods to serve them and worship them, shall be like this loincloth, which is good for nothing.” (13:8) God is near despair as he explains the metaphor: “For as the loincloth clings to one’s loins, so I made the whole house of Israel and the whole house of Judah cling to me, says the Lord, in order that they might be for me a people, a name, a praise, and a glory. But they would not listen.” (13:9) 

That last sentence–“they would not listen”–says it all. And that is exactly our state today. Not just the larger culture which sees no point in listening to a God they do not believe exists. But to us as well. Am I listening?

 2 Thessalonians 3:6–18: Clearly, there are already divisions and factions in the early church. One faction that Paul warns against are lazy believers: “Now we command you, beloved, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, to keep away from believers who are living in idleness and not according to the tradition that they received from us.” (6) The church, Paul is saying, consists of two groups: those who labor and those who do not. And he has no truck with the lazy “busybodies” (11), reminding them, “For even when we were with you, we gave you this command: Anyone unwilling to work should not eat.” (10) 

This passage well describes the “consumer church” of today, where many believe that the church should provide programs and activities that benefit them–all while they do not have to work in the community. All they need to do is show up on Sunday mornings, or drop their kids off at youth programs, and write occasional checks. Then, when the community no longer “meets my needs,” they move on, having contributed nothing.

Being part of a community means working in that community. To be sure, our focus is on worship and equipping ourselves, which requires work. But it is also exerting efforts that become a witness to the love and joy that the church of Jesus Christ brings into the world at large.

Psalm 97; Jeremiah 9:10–10:16; 2 Thessalonians 2:1–12

 Psalm 97: Celebrating God’s kingship over all creation, our psalmist gives us an image of God that I think beautifully describes the contradiction that God often seems to be to us by using imagery of clouds and fog juxtaposed to fire: “Cloud and dense fog around Him,…/Fire goes before him/ and all round burns His foes.” (2,3). Hidden in the cloud, God is unknowable, but in the fire we see he is a God of action.

The psalmist leaves no doubt as to Who is in charge over nature: “His lightnings lit up the world;/ the earth saw and quaked./ Mountains melted like wax before the Lord” (4,5) God’s impact on nature is a sign of God’s sovereignty over the affairs of humankind, as well:  “The heavens told His justice/ and all peoples saw His glory.” (6) And even those who do not believe in God will eventually witness God’s power: “All idol-worshippers are shamed,/ who boast of the ungods.” (7).  I really like Alter’s neologism: “ungods.” For that is exactly what we–and the broader culture–have done. We have made everything–be they material possessions, attitudes, and ambitions–our “ungods,” which ultimately will melt away like the mountains before God.

Then there’s a crucial instruction: “You who love the Lord, hate evil!” (10The question is, a) Notice that simply loving God does not automatically cause us to hate evil. That is something we must actively will to do–and it’s not a state, it’s an unending process. But why wouldn’t we do that when we realize that God “guards the lives of His faithful./ From the hands of the wicked He saves them.” (10) Alas, our self-centeredness is so strong that too often we would rather enjoy evil than hate it.

But there is always this promise that we should never forget: “Light is sown for the just,/ and for the upright of heart there is joy.” (11) What a marvelous image: God as planter sewing light among us. The question is, will we accept that light and allow it to grow in our hearts?

Jeremiah 9:10–10:16: Unlike the psalmist, Jeremiah gives us a bleak picture of the judging Godin answer to the question, “Why is the land ruined and laid waste like a wilderness, so that no one passes through?” (9:12). The answer is the usual one: “The Lord says: Because they have forsaken my law that I set before them, and have not obeyed my voice, or walked in accordance with it, but have stubbornly followed their own hearts.” (9:13)

After some very grim imagery [“Human corpses shall fall/ like dung upon the open field,” (9:22)], Jeremiah comes to the nub of the problem that is exactly our problem today: “Do not let the wise boast in their wisdom, do not let the mighty boast in their might, do not let the wealthy boast in their wealth; ” (9:23). But he does not leave us hanging. There is something far, far better to boast about: “let those who boast boast in this, that they understand and know me, that I am the Lord; I act with steadfast love, justice, and righteousness in the earth, for in these things I delight,” (9:24) 

Knowing God and rejoicing in him as the psalmist has told us to do seems so straightforward, so simple. Yet we cling to our idols and continue to ignore God, “who made the earth by his power,/ who established the world by his wisdom,/ and by his understanding stretched out the heavens.” (10:12) And in ignoring God, “Everyone is stupid and without knowledge;” (10:14a) While these ancient people to whom Jeremiah preached may have had idols of gold, we have our own idols which like those golden statues “are worthless, a work of delusion;/ at the time of their punishment they shall perish.” (10:15) Is there a more apt description than of ourselves and the culture we live in than this?

And it seems just as clear today as it did then what the ultimate fate of our culture will be. Yet we persist in our blind stupidity. 

2 Thessalonians 2:1–12: In warning the Thessalonians of not being duped by false preachers, Paul is sounding a lot like Jeremiah as he clarifies the theology of the Day of the Lord: “Let no one deceive you in any way; for that day will not come unless the rebellion comes first and the lawless one is revealed, the one destined for destruction.” (3) This is probably the best description of the Anti-Christ that we have. The real problem, as I see it, is that we will be duped by his claims. Many “anti-Christs” seem to have come and gone over the ages and all kinds of absurd accusations have been made–especially those claiming various popes to have been the Anti-Christ. Personally, I just don’t know what to think of the whole idea of an Anti-Christ. The OT seems to make it clear that there is already sufficient human-created evil in the world without having to have it personified by some sort of supernatural being like the Anti-Christ.

As he does so often, it sounds as if Paul were speaking today: “ The coming of the lawless one is apparent in the working of Satan, who uses all power, signs, lying wonders, and every kind of wicked deception for those who are perishing, because they refused to love the truth and so be saved.” (9, 10) I guess we should just leave it at that. As Jeremiah makes so clear, our duty is to love God and thereby know God. In the end, all else is falsity. 

 

 

Psalm 94:12–23; Jeremiah 3:14–4:22; 1 Thessalonians 4:1–12

Psalm 94:12–23: At verse 12 the psalm turns to the individual who is suffering and can take hopeful succor in the fact that the wicked will ultimately be punished: “Happy the man whom Yah chastises/…to make him quiet in evil days/ until a pit is dug for the wicked.” (12, 13). For despite the pain there is always hope because “the Lord will not abandon His people,/ and HIs estate He will not forsake.” (14)

Given the fact that God is always with us, the psalmist asks rhetorically, “Who will rise for me against evildoers?/ who will take a stand against the wrongdoers?” (16) and answers his question with a reflection on how God rescues him–and us: “Were not the Lord a help to me,/ I would have almost dwelled in the silent realm.” Not just rescue, but God’s love comes as well: “When I thought my foot had stumbled,/ Your kindness, Lord, sustained me.”

These many centuries later we have the assurance that God will do the same in our hearts as he did for the psalmist: “With my many cares within me,/ Your consolations delighted me.” (19) Every one of us carries a heavy burden of worries and cares. Jesus addresses this reality when he says that each day has sufficient worries of its own and not to fret about tomorrow.

But laying our worries aside is more than just an act of will. It is a reliance on the love and consolation that God brings–especially when, like the psalmist, we look out into the world and see so much hatred, strife, and trouble. God is indeed our ultimate hope when it appears that the wicked will triumph.

While we wait for the defeat of the wicked, we have something wonderful: “The Lord became my fortress,/ and my God, my sheltering Rock.” (22)

Jeremiah 3:14–4:22: We tend to think of Jeremiah as being only dire warnings. But there are wonderful promises from God as well: “I will give you shepherds after my own heart, who will feed you with knowledge and understanding.” (3:15) And the promise of the new Jerusalem: “At that time Jerusalem shall be called the throne of the Lord, and all nations shall gather to it, … and they shall no longer stubbornly follow their own evil will.” (3:17)

We see God’s plaintiveness, almost wistfulness, as Jeremiah speaks for him when it’s clear that Israel is rejecting the promise: “I thought how I would set you among my children,/and give you a pleasant land,/ the most beautiful heritage of all the nations..” (3:19) And then more tragically: “And I thought you would call me, My Father,/ and would not turn from following me. Instead, as a faithless wife leaves her husband,/ so you have been faithless to me, O house of Israel,” (3:20) This is us, too, isn’t it? We are faithless and untrusting, trusting only our own wrong instincts.

Nevertheless, God’s love is relentless and we read, “Return, O faithless children,/ I will heal your faithlessness.” Until I read these lines I had not really though about faithlessness as something that God could heal. But it makes sense. If we are willing to fall into the loving embrace of God, our faithlessness is supplanted by a love far, far greater; a love that heals.

But to experience this love requires our whole-hearted acceptance; a willingness to abandon our self-centeredness and our small-g Gods, replacing them with a permanent commitment in the famous lines: “Circumcise yourselves to the Lord,/ remove the foreskin of your hearts.” (4:4)

This being Jeremiah, our “prophet of doom” lays out the consequences if Israel does not return to God: “I am bringing evil from the north,/ and a great destruction.” (4:6b) Absent its repentance, “Your ways and your doings/ have brought this upon you./ This is your doom; how bitter it is!/ It has reached your very heart.” (4:18) Perhaps the greatest surprise in this prophecy is the pain that Israel’s rejection brings to God himself: “My anguish, my anguish! I writhe in pain!/ Oh, the walls of my heart!” (4:19) This is something we really don;t think about. The sorrow that we bring to God when we reject him. 

The final verse in today’s reading pretty much sums up our human reality:
   “For my people are foolish,
       they do not know me;
   they are stupid children,
       they have no understanding.
   They are skilled in doing evil,
       but do not know how to do good.” (4:22)

1 Thessalonians 4:1–12: Being a Christian is not only a state, it is a process of living well. Paul reminds us of that here: “we ask and urge you in the Lord Jesus that, as you learned from us how you ought to live and to please God (as, in fact, you are doing), you should do so more and more.” (4:1)

What follows is one of those passages that is at once wise and controversial now that we are fully in the throes of the sexual revolution–a phrase that is flung back at Christians as being narrow and puritanical: “abstain from fornication; that each one of you know how to control your own body in holiness and honor, not with lustful passion,” (4, 5a). The reason Paul gives for abstention is exactly the problem that the sexual revolution of casual “hook-ups” has created: “that no one wrong or exploit a brother or sister in this matter,” (6) In the end, as we read stories of date rape, this is exactly what it’s about: one person exploiting another. 

In the end, self-control is what matters, as Paul pleads with the Thessalonians and with us, in describing the aspects of the Christian life well lived: “to aspire to live quietly, to mind your own affairs, and to work with your hands, as we directed you, so that you may behave properly toward outsiders and be dependent on no one.” (11, 12) There is great wisdom here. Just about every aspect of our current culture exists in open defiance of this advice. If, as Christians, we adopt the values of the larger culture we are just as guilty as those “outsiders.” Especially the part about minding our own affairs.

Psalm 94:1–11; Jeremiah 2:20–3:13; 1 Thessalonians 3

Psalm 94:1–11: This psalm of supplication opens with an aggressively bold verse: “God of vengeance, O Lord,/ God of vengeance, shine forth!” This is hardly the gentle opening line of a prayer, nor is it highlighting a quality of God that we particularly care for. But it certainly gets our attention as the psalmist moves quickly to the topic of the first half of this prayer: the apparent triumph of injustice and the wicked.

Our psalmist is passionately angry as he urges, “Rise up, O judge of the earth/ bring down on the proud requital.” (2) The apparent success of the wicked causes him to ask with tears of frustration, “How long the wicked, O Lord,/ how long will the wicked exult?” (3)

What galls our poet–and us–is not only the apparent victory of wickedness over justice but that they boast of their triumph in smug superiority: “They utter arrogance, speak it,/ all the wrongdoers bandy boasts.” (4)  His frustration echoes my own feelings as I read my Facebook newsfeed where mockery of Christians who voice objections  to “progressive” social agendas such as gay marriage is daily fodder. Whatever position I may believe about a particular issue is not the point; it is the uncaring mockery that the anonymity that the Internet provides as every post seems to “bandy boasts” in this electronic echo chamber.

The poet turns to the actual injustice made rampant in the world by these evil ones: “Widow and sojourner they kill/ and orphans they murder” (6) [“Orphans they murder” certainly seems a fair description of abortion.] But worst of all is that that in their arrogance, “they say, ‘Yah will not see,/ and the God of Jacob will not heed.'” (7) Of course today the cry is simply that God does not exist, so there’s no greater power to even see what they are doing.

But the psalmist holds out hope because the God he knows and trusts suely will not ignore this woeful situation forever. God has designed our eyes and ears and it’s safe to say, “Who plants the ear, will He not hear?/ Who fashions the eye, will He not see?” (9) And having punished entire nations, God will surely punish these wicked individuals. (10) Above all God understand us, our desire to place ourselves as small-g gods: “The Lord knows human designs,/ that they are mere breath.” Not only are we ephemeral in God’s framework, but our plans and actions are even more so.

Jeremiah 2:20–3:13: We encounter the famous line, “you sprawled and played the whore.” (2:20) many times. But it is the remarkable metaphor that introduces Jeremiah’s main theme of hypocrisy: “Though you wash yourself with lye/ and use much soap,/ the stain of your guilt is still before me,” (2:22) We are exactly the same as those who “say, “I am not defiled,/ I have not gone after the Baals” (2:23) Like Israel we are perfectly happy to place our trust in material objects and “say to a tree, “You are my father,”/ and to a stone, “You gave me birth.” (2:27) Today, the tree and stone tend to be faith technology, but our selfish motivations are exactly the same. 

Jeremiah’s accusations bite to the core: “on your skirts is found/ the lifeblood of the innocent poor,” (2:34) In spite of this evidence we still have the temerity to come to God and say, ““I am innocent;/ surely his anger has turned from me.” (2:35) The reality is that Israel–and we–“have played the whore with many lovers”  (3:1) all while claiming to love and serve God.

Our hypocrisy is a greater sin than outright rejection of God as  Jeremiah reminds us, “Faithless Israel has shown herself less guilty than false Judah.” (3:11) We Christians are quick to excoriate atheists and those who mock our faith. The tragedy is that there are so many examples of Christian falsity–especially when we self-righteously render judgement on those who reject us. No wonder Jesus talked about logs in our eyes.

Only our confession will set things right:
Only acknowledge your guilt,
       that you have rebelled against the Lord your God,
   and scattered your favors among strangers under every green tree,
       and have not obeyed my voice,” (3:13)

1 Thessalonians 3: In that pre-electronic communications era, Paul remains in the dark about the status of the church in Thessalonica as they apparently are under the influence of someone preaching a false gospel: “when I could bear it no longer, I sent to find out about your faith; I was afraid that somehow the tempter had tempted you and that our labor had been in vain.” (5) as he sends his most trusted aide, Timothy, to find out what happened.

Happily, the news is good: “Timothy has just now come to us from you, and has brought us the good news of your faith and love. ” (6) This really makes Paul’s day: “during all our distress and persecution we have been encouraged about you through your faith. For we now live, if you continue to stand firm in the Lord.” (7,8) In fact, Paul’s joy at this news is overflowing: “How can we thank God enough for you in return for all the joy that we feel before our God because of you?” (9)

We can feel Paul’s joy because many of us have felt the same joy when someone we are praying for turns back to faith or comes through a dark valley. And for myself, as I pray for members of my family to return to faith, I look forward someday to experiencing that same joy.

Psalm 93; Jeremiah 1:8–2:19; 1 Thessalonians 2:10–20

Psalm 93: This brief psalm communicates the power and kingship of God from its very first lines: “The Lord reigns, in triumph clothed,/ clothed is the Lord, in strength He is girded.” (1) Triumph and strength remind us that God is not some avuncular old bearded gentleman, but that he possesses greater power than anything we can imagine. And it is because of God’s power that “the world stands firm, not to be shaken.” (1b) For me, this is a reminder that it is the height of hubris to think we mere humans can control the natural forces that are an expression of God’s power. A reality we are reminded of whenever we see pictures of devastated towns following a tornado or an earthquake.

Moreover, enthroned God has always existed: “Your throne stands firm from old,/ from forever You are.” (2) Alter’s translation, “from forever You are,” really resonates for me here. We cannot nail down God because he stands outside our frame of reference. Trying to make God be like us or to trying to fully comprehend why there is brokenness in the world and that it must be God’s fault is a fool’s errand.

In the verses that follow we can hear the rushing of water, in the repeated lines, “The streams lifted up, O LORD,/ the streams lifted up their voice/ the streams lift up their roaring.” as the verse builds to an almost audible crescendo. Not just the streams, communicate God’s power but we hear the roar of the sea itself: “More than the sound of many waters,/ the sea’s majestic breakers.” (4a) Of course in the dry land of Israel, water was the source of power and is the perfect metaphor for God’s majestic power. Something to reflect on the next time we are beside the rapids of a rushing river or standing on the Pacific shore.

Jeremiah 1:8–2:19: God anoints Jeremiah as Judah’s official prophet and then tests him by giving him two visions, the branch of an almond tree and a boiling pot tilted to the north. Jeremiah passes the tests and moves directly to telling the new prophet that there will be disaster for Judah if it does not repent from its idolatry: “Then the Lord said to me: Out of the north disaster shall break out on all the inhabitants of the land. (1:14) and “I will utter my judgments against them, for all their wickedness in forsaking me; they have made offerings to other gods, and worshiped the works of their own hands.” (1:16).

Jeremiah’s reply is not recorded, but it’s clear from God’s instruction that the young prophet was not exactly ready to go proclaim bad news boldly. God tells him; well, actually, God threatens him: “But you, gird up your loins; stand up and tell them everything that I command you. Do not break down before them, or I will break you before them.” (1:17).

I believe that it is this clear instruction that gave Jeremiah his ability to tell Judah what was coming and what it had to do. Jeremiah became the unrelenting “prophet of doom,” so much so that the word, “jeremiad” meaning “a long, mournful complaint or lamentation; a list of woes.” came into our language.

So, with that introduction, the remainder of this long book is the enormous variety of warnings, metaphors and threats that God communicated to Judah through his prophet. Ultimately to no avail.

But it’s equally important to observe that first of all, God communicated his deep love for his people, which is exactly how Jeremiah’s opening prophecy begins as Jeremiah utters the phrase we will hear again and again: “Thus says the Lord:”
   “I remember the devotion of your youth,
       your love as a bride,
   how you followed me in the wilderness,
       in a land not sown.” (2:1)

Jeremiah accuses Judah of another sin just as great as idolatry: it is the root sin of forgetting God, the God who rescued them and brought them to the promised land and placing their own egos at the center of their lives. Jeremiah poses an important rhetorical question: “Has a nation changed its gods,/ even though they are no gods?” (2:11) Here we are almost 3000 years later and we face exactly the same question as our society so quickly abandons the moral order established by western Judeo-Christian culture. We are engaged in the process of forgetting God as we enthusiastically quest after the small-g gods–our own self interest– that consume our lives and ultimately render them meaningless. This meaningless is beautifully communicated in 2:13:
   “for my people have committed two evils:
       they have forsaken me,
   the fountain of living water,
       and dug out cisterns for themselves,
  cracked cisterns
      that can hold no water.”

Two evils, not just one: First, we’ve abandoned God and then worse, we’ve built cisterns that can hold no water. This is a brilliant metaphor for the ultimate consequences of placing ourselves rather than God at the center of creation: we are leaky cisterns that ultimately amount to nothing.

1 Thessalonians 2:10–20: In this section we see Paul as pastor rather than theologian as he remembers how “we dealt with each one of you like a father with his children, urging and encouraging you and pleading that you lead a life worthy of God, who calls you into his own kingdom and glory.” (11,12) And we see his pastoral joy as he recalls “that when you received the word of God that you heard from us, you accepted it not as a human word but as what it really is, God’s word, which is also at work in you believers.” (13). I cannot imagine a more satisfying outcome for any man or woman who has brought the Word to his or her flock.

We also get a hint of the ferocious opposition that Paul encountered (and we read in Acts) from his fellow Jews at his audacity in carrying the Good News to Gentiles. And we see Paul’s human side–perhaps even a hint of satisfied pride–as he remarks, that the Jews “have constantly been filling up the measure of their sins; but God’s wrath has overtaken them at last.” (16)

Finally, in this section, we see Paul’s longing to be with this community he loved so much, together with his frustration that he has been unable to return to them: “we longed with great eagerness to see you face to face.For we wanted to come to you—certainly I, Paul, wanted to again and again—but Satan blocked our way.” (17b, 18) His exclamation, “Yes, you are our glory and joy!” (20) hints at the enormous depth of love and passion that was so much a part of this remarkable man. Would that I had just a scintilla of Paul’s passion for what God had commissioned him to do.

Psalm 92:10–16; Isaiah 66–Jeremiah 1:7; 1 Thessalonians 1:5b–2:9

Psalm 92:10–16: Our psalmist moves from the philosophical reasons why wrongdoers seem to succeed to celebrating their eventual destruction: “For, look, Your enemies perish,/ all the wrongdoers are scattered.” (10) And the poet is witness: “And my eyes behold my foe’s defeat,/ those hostile toward me,my ears hear their fall.” Notice the parallelism> In verse ten it is God’s enemies “”Your enemies”) who perish; in verse 12 it’s the psalmist’s personal enemies who fall.

But above all, and as is always the case, it is God who acts. Not us. Yet, in all the ongoing noise about the increasing “secularization” of our so-called “Christian society,” there is always the sense that it is we who must act because we’ve decided that God is either not listening or impotent.

In the place pf the now fallen wrongdoers, “the righteous man springs up like a palm tree,/ like the Lebanon cedar he towers.” (13) These two similes that evoke an image of hugeness and strength are far greater than the enemies and wrongdoers who merely “spring up like grass” (8) Not only are God’s righteous men (and women) far greater than these fallen enemies, unlike the grass, “they bear fruit still in old age,’ fresh and full of sap are they.” (5) How much better it is to be full of God’s sap and bearing fruit–and for us we Christians, we know what that fruit is– than to moan and whine about how unfair life is or how evil society is becoming.

Isaiah 66–Jeremiah 1:7: This remarkable  and prophetic book ends on apocalyptic theme and we can see where the author of Revelation got some of his ideas. God is coming back to all the earth in visible and dramatic fashion: “For the Lord will come in fire,/ and his chariots like the whirlwind,” (66:15) There will be a reckoning for all humankind: “For by fire will the Lord execute judgment,/ and by his sword, on all flesh;” (66:16). Isaiah clarifies who is included in God’s return and judgement in the prose that follows these verses: “I am coming to gather all nations and tongues; and they shall come and shall see my glory,” (18) 

And then a passage that can only be a prophecy of the growth of the early Church: “I will send survivors to the nations, to Tarshish, Put, and Lud—which draw the bow—to Tubal and Javan, to the coastlands far away that have not heard of my fame or seen my glory; and they shall declare my glory among the nations.” It is the Gentiles who ultimately declare the glory of God beyond the boundaries of Israel, exactly what the Apostles–especially Paul of Tarshish–did. Isaiah ends this lengthy book that has focused on the promises to Israel on an expanded promise of a remade creation that includes everyone:
For as the new heavens and the new earth,
       which I will make,
   shall remain before me, says the Lord;” (66:22)

But there is also the promise that his people Israel will endure through the ages: “so shall your descendants and your name remain.”  (66:22b). Even though it is currently fashionable among “enlightened Christians” to poo-poo the idea that modern Israel exists because of this promise, it’s difficult to read these lines and not think of what has happened: that God’s people–with and without a nation to call their own–continue to exist and to prosper. One thing we come away with for sure: God makes good on his promises.

For some reason the Moravians include God’s commissioning of Jeremiah in today’s reading. It certainly demonstrates the continuity of the prophetic voice within Israel. Like Isaiah, Jeremiah has been deemed a prophet by God himself in these famous words:
   “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you,
    and before you were born I consecrated you;
    I appointed you a prophet to the nations.”

Jeremiah replies that “I am only a boy,” but God demurs:
   “Do not say, ‘I am only a boy’;
    for you shall go to all to whom I send you,
    and you shall speak whatever I command you.”

Does God speak this way today? I don’t know, and I confess to being cynical about those who claim to be God’s special emissaries. As I suspect those in Jeremiah’s time did as well. But this line is proof that God works through whomever he wills, regardless of age.

1 Thessalonians 1:5b–2:9: Paul writes, “because our message of the gospel came to you not in word only, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction;” (1:5), which is a clear reminder that Christianity is more than mere words, even though it sure sounds that way most of the time. The power of the Good News exists only in the presence of the Holy Spirit.

One thing we tend to skip over now that we are almost 2000 years away from Paul’s writings, is his sense of urgency and the imminence of Jesus’ return as he praises the Thessalonians who have “turned to God from idols, to serve a living and true God, and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead—Jesus, who rescues us from the wrath that is coming.” (1: 9,10) But I have to confess; it’s not easy to maintain that same sense of imminent return all these years later.

But, as always, it’s what we do while waiting that matters. Paul uses himself as the prime example: “we had already suffered and been shamefully mistreated at Philippi, as you know, we had courage in our God to declare to you the gospel of God in spite of great opposition.” (2:2) I think the other thing to remember–especially as we move inevitably into a post-Christian world–is that we are to be courageous and that like Paul, “we speak, not to please mortals, but to please God who tests our hearts.” (2:4) And like Paul, we are to “work night and day” is carrying the Good News to those who have not heard. But again, it’s more than words, it’s actions that matter.

Psalm 92:1–8; Isaiah 64,65; Colossians 4:10–1 Thessalonians 1:5a

Psalm 92:1–8: This psalm opens with rejoicing: “It is good to acclaim the Lord/ and to hymn to Your name, Most high…” (2) We get a glimpse of what worship must have been like: that it is more than just an hour but an all-day affair: “…to tell in the morning Your kindness,/ Your faithfulness in the nights.” (3) And worship was intensely musical: “…on ten-stringed instrument and on the lute,/ on the lyre with chanted song.” (4) But above all, it our reflection on what God has done–or in our case, also what Jesus has done: “For You made me rejoice, Lord, through Your acts,/ for the works of Your hands I sing in gladness.” (5).

Notice that the source of our rejoicing is what God has done for us through “Your acts” and the “work of Your hands.” Our joy has a godly source; it is not self-generated. I think this is the crucial difference between true joy and the ways in which we try to create a sort of artificial joy through events and acts of our own, all of which fade quickly. Only God’s joy has lasting power.

At this point the psalm shifts to a philosophical note observing, “How great are Your works, O Lord/ Your designs are very deep.” (6) We will never fully grasp the depth of what God has done–and is doing–in his creation. Especially with regard to injustice and the apparent short term success of the wicked, who “spring up like grass,/ and all wrongdoers flourish.” (8a) The psalmist is telling us that God’s “deep designs” and why God allows this lies beyond our understanding. But one thing is sure: They will eventually “be destroyed for all time.” (8b) Because is is “You [who] are on high forever, O Lord!” (9)

These are important words for us to remember in these days when the culture is arising up in active hostility against what they call “Christian.” There’s a deeper lesson in there: are we who call ourselves “Christian” really acting (and notice that this psalm is all about action) as Jesus told us we should?

Isaiah 64,65: In the deuteronomic system there is always reckoning as Isaiah writes in the voice of God: “ I will not keep silent, but I will repay;/ I will indeed repay into their laps/ their iniquities and their ancestors’ iniquities together,” (65:6) But those who cling to God will be spared: “I will bring forth descendants from Jacob,/ and from Judah inheritors of my mountains;” (65:9). I don’t think it’s a stretch to imagine this as a prophesy of Jesus.

But for those who abandon God, they will receive their just fate: “I will destine you to the sword,/ and all of you shall bow down to the slaughter;/ because, when I called, you did not answer,” (64). The terms of the Covenant are starkly apparent.

But for those who follow God, there is the glorious promise, “I am about to create new heavens/ and a new earth;” (17) and we should “be glad and rejoice forever
in what I am creating;” (65:17) Isaiah then describes a New Jerusalem, reminding us that the New Jerusalem of Revelation is not the first time where “no more shall the sound of weeping be heard in it,/ or the cry of distress.” (65:19) God will always be present, “they call I will answer,/  while they are yet speaking I will hear.” (65:24) And then, in the famous image, “The wolf and the lamb shall feed together,/ the lion shall eat straw like the ox;” (65:25)

If we are wondering for a description of what God’s perfect creation will be like, this is a good place to look. For what I think Isaiah is describing here is what Jesus called the Kingdom of God.

Colossians 4:10–1 Thessalonians 1:5a: Paul adds his personal notes “with my own hand” as he concludes his letter to the church at Colossae. What’s fascinating is that “Aristarchus my fellow prisoner,” “Mark, the cousin of Barnabus,” and “Jesus who is called Justus” are the only “the only ones of the circumcision among my co-workers for the kingdom of God, and they have been a comfort to me.” (4:11) Paul has been completely abandoned by the Jews, and we can only conclude the Church is now almost completely Gentile.

This greeting also reminds us that Paul is not just an abstraction, but a human being surrounded by friends, who truly loved him. Also, in this wonderful passage full of names is where we see the crucial point of the church that I think we forget too often as we talk about “personal faith.” The essential element of the Church is that it is flesh and blood community. No TV evangelist will ever replace that. Nor will some abstract statement that “I have my own personal spirituality.”  Those who say that are fooling only themselves.