Archives for August 2017

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

Psalm 92:10–16: Having likened his enemies to withering grass, our psalmist continues to rejoice that God’s enemies will soon meet their doom just as the grass withers in the hot afternoon sun:
For, look, Your enemies, O Lord,
for, look, Your enemies perish,
all the wrongdoers are scattered.” (10)

Likewise, the enemies of our faithful psalmist suffer their deserved fate at God’s hands—contrasted with what seems to be an anointing from God himself. Notice that the poet witnesses the downfall of his enemies both visually and audibly. There is no question they have been fully vanquished:
And You raise up my horn like the wild ox.
I am soaked in fresh oil.And my eyes behold my foes defeat,
those hostile toward me, my ears hear their fall.” (11, 12)

With his enemies dispensed with, our poet turns to how God blesses the righteous man (including him) as he employs a metaphor of tall trees that contrast mightily with the enemies who were metaphorical grass a few verses back:
The righteous man springs up like the palm tree,
like the Lebanon cedar he towers.
Planted in the house of the Lord,
in the courts of our God they flourish.
They bear fruit still in old age,.
fresh and full of sap they are” (13-15)

This flourishing takes place because he is “planted in the house of the Lord.” Just as trees cannot grow without constant nourishment so too, we cannot grow in God without being “planted” in worship, prayer and scripture. What’s especially encouraging to me in my advancing old age is that spiritual growth continues to occur throughout one’s life as long as we remain “planted in the Lord.”

Our duty as growing, fruitful trees is to witness both to God in worship and to others of God’s saving grace that he has given to us through Jesus Christ and, “to tell that the Lord is upright,/ my rock, there is no rong in Him.” (16)

Isaiah 66–Jeremiah 1:7: We arrive at last at the end of Isaiah, although I know from experience that Jeremiah will also be something of a slog…

Isaiah continues to peak God’s words, making it clear that God is totally in charge of all creation:
Heaven is my throne
    and the earth is my footstool;
what is the house that you would build for me,
    and what is my resting place?
All these things my hand has made,
    and so all these things are mine,
says the Lord.” (66:1, 2a)

God is looking for humility and obedience, not false worship from the rich and powerful:
But this is the one to whom I will look,
    to the humble and contrite in spirit,
    who trembles at my word.” (66:2b)

But as for those who “have chosen their own ways,/ and in their abominations they take delight” there is the darker fate of being brought to justice before God:
I also will choose to mock  them,
    and bring upon them what they fear;
because, when I called, no one answered,
    when I spoke, they did not listen;
but they did what was evil in my sight,
    and chose what did not please me.” (66:4)

Which seems to be Isaiah’s overall theme as far as God’s relationship with humans is concerned. Ignore God or abandon him altogether and you will suffer bad consequences. This is not the grace-filled, loving God we mostly like to think about. God demands obedience and worship and woe to those who fail to heed his command.

As always, though, Isaiah presents us with both sides of God, who also promises to deliver Israel from its present woes in a metaphor of a mother giving birth:
Listen, an uproar from the city!
    A voice from the temple!
The voice of the Lord,
    dealing retribution to his enemies!

Shall a land be born in one day?
    Shall a nation be delivered in one moment?
Yet as soon as Zion was in labor
    she delivered her children.
Shall I open the womb and not deliver?
    says the Lord;
shall I, the one who delivers, shut the womb?
    says your God.” (66:6, 8,9)

Indeed, Israel will find comfort at last through its rebirth:
I will extend prosperity to her like a river,
    and the wealth of the nations like an overflowing stream;
and you shall nurse and be carried on her arm,
    and dandled on her knees.
As a mother comforts her child,
    so I will comfort you;
    you shall be comforted in Jerusalem.” (66:12, 13)

However, all of these events appear to be off in the distant future at the end of history on the Day of the Lord as things once again turn apocalyptic:
For the Lord will come in fire,
    and his chariots like the whirlwind,
to pay back his anger in fury,
    and his rebuke in flames of fire.
For by fire will the Lord execute judgment,
    and by his sword, on all flesh;
    and those slain by the Lord shall be many.” (66:15, 16)

A prose description of the fate of unbelievers follows. But what is perhaps most meaningful for us is that once again the Day of the Lord will be a ingathering over every tribe and nation, not just Israel, which I think is what became known in the NT as the Day of Judgement: “They shall bring all your kindred from all the nations as an offering to the Lord, on horses, and in chariots, and in litters, and on mules, and on dromedaries, to my holy mountain Jerusalem, says the Lord.” (66:20)

This long, brilliant yet often puzzling book ends with God reigning over all creation and all people faithful to God:
For as the new heavens and the new earth,
    which I will make,
shall remain before me, says the Lord;
    so shall your descendants and your name remain.
From new moon to new moon,
    and from sabbath to sabbath,
all flesh shall come to worship before me,
says the Lord.” (66:22-23)

But Isaiah cannot resist a footnote describing the eternal punishment of the disobedient: “And they shall go out and look at the dead bodies of the people who have rebelled against me; for their worm shall not die, their fire shall not be quenched, and they shall be an abhorrence to all flesh.” (66:24) Which is hardly a happy note to end on, but then again that does not seem to bother this prophet.

Since the Moravians are indifferent to stopping at the end of a book, we meet Jeremiah, “son of Hilkiah, of the priests who were in Anathoth in the land of Benjamin, to whom the word of the Lord came in the days of King Josiah son of Amon of Judah, in the thirteenth year of his reign.” (1:1, 2) Jeremiah prophesied at the very end of Judah’s existence in the years before it was overrun by the Babylonians in 587 BCE.

Like Isaiah, Jeremiah receives his prophetic chops directly from God, who speaks to him:
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.” (1:5)

Jeremiah is only 13 and tries to demur, but God remains insistent:
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.” (1:6)

Thus begins the career of Judah’s second greatest prophet after Isaiah.

1 Thessalonians 1:5b–2:9: Thessalonica was one of Paul’s earliest missions and he commends the people in the church there for becoming a missionaries like Paul to other cities: “And you became imitators of us and of the Lord, for in spite of persecution you received the word with joy inspired by the Holy Spirit, so that you became an example to all the believers in Macedonia and in Achaia.” (1:6, 7)

Paul knows this because he heard from others “how you 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.” (9b, 10) Notice that in this early letter Paul is quite specific about the Second Coming, which he believes to be in the near term. Like Isaiah, he also mentions the wrath of God.

We encounter the hint that something fairly awful happened to Paul when he visited Philippi: “though 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) As we read in Acts, it was the Jews who threw Paul and Baranbas in jail there.

Once again, Paul is at great pains to establish his bona fides: “but just as we have been approved by God to be entrusted with the message of the gospel, even so we speak, not to please mortals, but to please God who tests our hearts.” (2:4) He also makes it clear that he is trying to avoid becoming a personality cult, which would obscure the gospel message: “we never came with words of flattery or with a pretext for greed; nor did we seek praise from mortals, whether from you or from others.” (2:5, 6) It wouldn’t hurt for a few current TV evangelists to reflect on these verses for a while.

Paul apparently plied his tentmaker trade while at Thessolonica in order to avoid having to be supported by the church, which doubtless did not have the funds to pay Paul a salary so early in its existence: “You remember our labor and toil, brothers and sisters; we worked night and day, so that we might not burden any of you while we proclaimed to you the gospel of God.” (9)

These verses are not in the lectionary nor have I ever heard them as the subject of a sermon. I wonder if that’s because a congregation would be tempted to compare Paul with the preacher standing in front of them. And the comparison would probably raise a few sticky issues over personality and/or finances.

 

 

 

Psalm 92:1–9; Isaiah 64,65; Colossians 4:10–1 Thessalonians 1:5a

Psalm 92:1–9: Designated for the Sabbath day—and doubtless sung on the Sabbath throughout Jewish history—this psalm celebrates the act of worship. As far as the psalmist is concerned worship occurs both in the morning and evening. He also designates the appropriate musical instruments to accompany the choir:
It is good to acclaim the Lord
and to hymn to Your name, Most High,
to tell in the morning Your kindness,
Your faithfulness in the nights,
on ten-stringed instrument and on the lute,
on the lyre with chanted sound.” (2-4)

The impact of the act of worship on the worshipper is substantial because it causes us to reflect on God’s faithfulness, as well as his creation:
For You made me rejoice, Lord, through Your acts,
of the work of Your hands I sing in gladness.” (5)

The chanted psalm has long been a part of Lutheran worship and I well remember the days when we sang the psalms every Sunday at Saint Matthew. Alas, the psalmody became another element of worship consigned to the dustbin of liturgical history in order to accommodate additional praise choruses and a longer sermon.

But it is this very reflection on God’s kindness and faithfulness and the profundity of his works that makes us realize that he—not we—is the center of the universe. As the psalmist implies, singing the psalms helps increase wisdom by putting the acts of the ungodly into their proper perspective:
The brutish man does not know,
nor does the fool understand this:
the wicked spring up like grass,
and all the wrongdoers flourish—
to be destroyed for all time.” (6-8)

These are immensely encouraging verses as we witness—and endure—the venality and gross stupidity going on in Washington DC (and for you residents of California—in Sacramento) among our so-called leaders.

Today’s reading concludes on an enthusiastic note:
And You are on high forever, O Lord.” (9)

We can be grateful that among the noise and hubbub, as well as the constant cultural refrain that denies his very existence, God still reigns.

Isaiah 64,65: Isaiah wishes for something that I think every believer wishes for at some point when things seem hopeless:
O that you would tear open the heavens and come down,
    so that the mountains would quake at your presence—

to make your name known to your adversaries,
    so that the nations might tremble at your presence!” (64:1,2)

Isaiah goes on to describes his—and our—feelings of discouragement at God’s seeming absence. It feels like God gave up on us because the world gave up on him:
There is no one who calls on your name,
    or attempts to take hold of you;
for you have hidden your face from us,
    and have delivered  us into the hand of our iniquity.” (64:7)

But then as now, and despite our frustrations, we must remember who is is Creator and who are God’s creatures, as Isaiah famously reminds us:
Yet, O Lord, you are our Father;
    we are the clay, and you are our potter;
    we are all the work of your hand.” (64:8)

Of course most of us wrongly imagine ourselves as the potter fully in control of our destinies. Nevertheless, God’s silence today is just as frustrating as it was for Isaiah. Just as the temple had been destroyed, so it seems our very civilization teeters on the brink and,
and all our pleasant places have become ruins.
After all this, will you restrain yourself, O Lord?
    Will you keep silent, and punish us so severely?” (64:11b, 12)

We rightly wonder what God is thinking as he looks down on the tumult that surrounds us. The prideful folly of our humanity has gotten us into this fix and we rightly cannot expect God to bail us out. After a brief moment of thanking God, we would simply start right back in our sinfulness. After all, we have the back and forth history of Old Testament Israel as a prime example of people wasting God’s rescue.

Isaiah’s frustration comes to the fore in chapter 65. His prophetic words have been ignored:
I was ready to be sought out by those who did not ask,
    to be found by those who did not seek me.
I said, “Here I am, here I am,”
    to a nation that did not call on my name.” (65:1)

It’s an enormous frustration to Isaiah as he witnesses the hypocritical stupidity of the people’s false religions:
a people who provoke me
    to my face continually,
sacrificing in gardens
    and offering incense on bricks;” (65:3)

A great image: offering incense on bricks is symbolic of our own idols that in the end are simply bricks.

Basically, God plans to do away with these people who have drifted far from him:
“...because they offered incense on the mountains
    and reviled me on the hills,
I will measure into their laps
    full payment for their actions.” (65:7)

But God will not punish everyone. He will spare and bless a faithful remnant:
so I will do for my servants’ sake,
    and not destroy them all.
I will bring forth descendants from Jacob,
    and from Judah inheritors of my mountains;
my chosen shall inherit it,
    and my servants shall settle there.” (65:8b, 9)

But as for the majority that have abandoned God, he will in turn abandon them:
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,
    when I spoke, you did not listen,
but you did what was evil in my sight,
    and chose what I did not delight in.” (65:12)

At this point, things turn apocalyptic as God promises a brand new creation to the remnant of believers. The old creation will not merely become a distant memory, rather, it will be forgotten altogether:
For I am about to create new heavens
    and a new earth;
the former things shall not be remembered
    or come to mind.” (65:17)

I suspect the author of Revelation was familiar with this passage that describes a perfect world, if not heaven itself:
No more shall there be in it
    an infant that lives but a few days,
    or an old person who does not live out a lifetime;
for one who dies at a hundred years will be considered a youth,
    and one who falls short of a hundred will be considered accursed.

They shall not labor in vain,
    or bear children for calamity;
for they shall be offspring blessed by the Lord
    and their descendants as well.” (65:20, 23)

This is indeed a blessed hope for us since we have become those very heirs through Jesus Christ (and what is explained at great length in the epistle to the Hebrews).

Colossians 4:10–1 Thessalonians 1:5a: Paul’s letter to Colossae concludes with a remarkable list of people who are with Paul. As a special bonus in addition to the names, we are given hints about these people themselves and/or what they are doing:

  • There’s a fellow prisoner named Aristarchus.
  • Aristarchus, Mark and Justus are the only Christian Jews with Paul.
  • Epaphrus, apparently from Colossae, “is always wrestling in his prayers on your behalf.” (4:12)
  • Epaphrus has not only worked for the Colossians, but the Laodiceans as well.
  • Luke is the “beloved physician” and Demas is Luke’s and Paul’s friend.
  • And a certain Archippus is called upon to “complete the task that you have received in the Lord.” (4:17) Would that we knew what that task was.
  • The letter needs to be passed on to Laodicea after being read to the Colossians
  • There was apparnetly a letter from Laodicea Received by Paul  that raised some of the same issues as at Colossae, which Paul has addressed in his letter.
  • Depsite his enthusiasm, Paul asks that everyone “Remember my chains.” (18) He is, after all, a prisoner of the state.

The letter to the Thessalonians, which is thought by theologians to be Paul’s earliest letter, opens with the usual compliments about its recipients, who are also the subject of Paul’s prayers: “ We always give thanks to God for all of you and mention you in our prayers, constantly remembering before our God and Father your work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ.” (1:2,3)

Interestingly, it appears those at Thessalonica became believers not just through Paul’s sermons and teaching, ” but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction.”  (5) Which I take to be some kind of miraculous occurrence. As usual, we are left without the details…

With the introductions taken care of, Paul will soon get down to business. But both the conclusion to Colossians and preamble to 1 Thessalonians reminds us that Paul had a very human side. He valued friendships and was quick to spread credit among his associates. Unlike some self-centered preachers Paul did not claim all the glory for himself.

 

Psalm 91:9–16; Isaiah 62,63; Colossians 4:1–9

Psalm 91:9–16: The last half of this psalm is a beautifully poetic description of the promise of protection afforded the man who follows and as we see here, metaphorically if not literally, dwells with God:
For the Lord is your refuge,
the Most High you have made your abode.
No harm will befall you,
no affliction draw near to your tent.” (9, 10)

While we who live in this God-rejecting age tend to poo-poo the idea of guardian angels, for this poet it is the means by which God provides protection from physical danger—be it the rocky landscape or the many animals that once roamed the Judean countryside:
For His messengers He charges for you
to guard you on all your ways.
On their palms they lift you up
lest your foot be bruised by a stone.
On lion and viper you tread,
you trample young lion and serpent.” (11-13)

God now speaks and makes it clear why he is protecting this man. It is simply because he has chosen to follow God:
For Me he desired and I freed him,
I raised him high, for he has known MY name.
He calls Me and I answer him,
I am with him in his straits.
I deliver him and grant him honor.” (14, 15)

Moreover, in the concluding verset we see that God grants his follower long life:
With length of days I shall sate him,
and show him my rescue.” (16)

Wow. What promises! And what a contrast to the many psalms of supplication where God has apparently abandoned the psalmist. Somehow we know that this psalm speaks the absolute truth of God’s promises even when we are in our darkest hour. Yes, there is hyperbole, and it often seems that God has indeed abandoned us. This psalm makes it clear that is not the case. But I can think of no better description of God’s faithfulness when we but elect to follow him through the salvific power of Jesus Christ.

I think the psalmist has beautifully expressed in just a few lines the concept that it takes Paul chapter after chapter to get across: God is faithful and loves us and saves us. We need only be faithful and love God and others in return.

Isaiah 62,63: Speaking of God’s promises… Isaiah writes of God’s promise to rebuild Zion (the temple) and Jerusalem itself:
For Zion’s sake I will not keep silent,
    and for Jerusalem’s sake I will not rest,
until her vindication shines out like the dawn,
    and her salvation like a burning torch.” (62:1)

Some of the language of this promise becomes downright florid:
You shall be a crown of beauty in the hand of the Lord,
    and a royal diadem in the hand of your God.” (62:3)

But we have to believe that when the exiled Jews read these passages they would experience that most elusive of emotions: hope:
You shall no more be termed Forsaken,
    and your land shall no more be termed Desolate.” (62:4)

More importantly, Isaiah writes of God’s promise that is not just for the daughter of Zion, but through Jesus Christ is for all of us:
See, your salvation comes;
his reward is with him,
    and his recompense before him.”
They shall be called, “The Holy People,
    The Redeemed of the Lord”” (62:11)

If we can say nothing else about this book we can agree that its author certainly jumps around. The beginning of the next chapter describes God’s planned vengeance on Edom (of all places). God or his agent apparently returns from Edom, his robes stained in red. The author asks,
Who is this so splendidly robed,
marching in his great might?”

“It is I, announcing vindication,
    mighty to save.” (63:1)

The author asks “why are your robes red,/ and your garments like theirs who tread the wine press?” (62:2) The figure answers that is the metaphorical juice of the people of Edom, who were like grapes crushed in the press as he explains,
I trod them in my anger
    and trampled them in my wrath;
their juice spattered on my garments,
    and stained all my robes.
For the day of vengeance was in my heart,
    and the year for my redeeming work had come.” (63:3, 4)

So much for the image of this redeeming God as we once again see his vengeful side.

As happens so frustratingly often in this book, the author abruptly changes the subject to speak of God’s mercy on Israel:
I will recount the gracious deeds of the Lord,
    the praiseworthy acts of the Lord,

that he has shown them according to his mercy,
    according to the abundance of his steadfast love.” (63:7)

A long disquisition about Israel’s rebelliousness follows as our author again recapitulates how God accompanied the people of Israel into the promised land, but after a brief interval of faith they abandoned God. The chapter ends with a prayer of penitence wherein our author asks one of the great but wrongheaded questions all of ask at one point or another as we seek to return to God:
Why, O Lord, do you make us stray from your ways
    and harden our heart, so that we do not fear you?” (63:17a)

Well, we know the answer, don’t we? God does not make us stray from our ways or harden our hearts; we do. But it is because God has given us the free will to reject him.

The chapter ends on a sad note of supplication as the author admits their collective sinfulness in following the small-g gods of other nations rather than the Lord God of Israel:
Turn back for the sake of your servants,
    for the sake of the tribes that are your heritage.
Your holy people took possession for a little while;
    but now our adversaries have trampled down your sanctuary.
We have long been like those whom you do not rule,
    like those not called by your name.” (63:17b-19)

Colossians 4:1–9: Even though Paul’s writing about slaves makes us uncomfortable in the same way as about the requirement that wives be subordinate to their husbands, he never fails to include instructions to the other side of the relationship. Just as husbands are to love and respect their wives, so too, “Masters, treat your slaves justly and fairly, for you know that you also have a Master in heaven.” (4:1)

Paul then turns to the necessity of prayer in the Christian life: “Devote yourselves to prayer, keeping alert in it with thanksgiving.” (2). In one of those personal notes he often inserts, he asks for prayer for himself: “At the same time pray for us as well that God will open to us a door for the word, that we may declare the mystery of Christ, for which I am in prison, so that I may reveal it clearly, as I should.” (3,4) Notice that Paul does not ask that he be released from prison, but that he be given more opportunities to witness for Christ. Communicating the Good News was always Paul’s highest priority. Sad to say, it’s rarely mine.

Paul’s concluding instructions—and goodness knows, he is never short of advice—are about the relationship between those in he church with the world outside the church: “Conduct yourselves wisely toward outsiders, making the most of the time.  Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer everyone.” (5,6) In other words, don’t waste others time or your own. I think this relates to Jesus’ command to recognize where the gospel will not be received and to shake the dust from our sandals and move on.

I particularly like the part about gracious speech seasoned with salt. Gracious speech does not have to be boring and bland. Too many Christians engage in those tired cliches and Chirsitain jargon like “God knows your heart” or “Jesus told me…” that have zero meaning outside the church. Paul’s advice is to speak kindly but originally in terms the non-Chirstian world will understand.

This short but grace-filled letter ends with some personal notes, not least being the happy return of Onesimus, “the faithful and beloved brother, who is one of you.” We will get the Onesimus  back-story in the short letter of Philemon.

Psalm 91:1–8; Isaiah 60,61; Colossians 3:12–25

Psalm 91:1–8: This psalm is somewhat unusual in that the psalmist identifies the speaker as “He who dwells in the Most High’s shelter,” and sets the scene as the man who is “in the shadow of Shaddai [that] lies at night.” (1) The man who speaks is deeply grateful for God’s protection from what appears to be both military conflict and/or a plague, stating that same protection is available to others (the plural “you”), which certainly includes us:
I say of the Lord, ‘My refuge and bastion,
my God in whom I trust.’
For He will save you from the fowler’s snare,
from the disastrous plague.” (2,3)

God’s protection is metaphorically that of a mothering bird. (And we need to be careful here: the metaphor is describing God’s protection, not a description of that God looks like a large bird):
With His pinion He shelters you,
and beneath His wings you take refuge,
a shield and a buckler, His truth.” (4)

There is continuous 24-hour benefit from God’s protection. It is psychological and emotional protection both from the trials of the day and our ruminations as we lie awake at night:
You shall not fear from the terror of night
nor from the arrow that flies by day,” (5)

And there is physical protection as well:
…from the plague that stalks in darkness
[and] from the scourge that rages at noon.” (6)

God’s protection is directed to us as individuals, even when we find ourselves in circumstances where all others around us are dying, whether in battle or from disease, which our pslamist states memorably:
Though a thousand fall at your side
and ten thousand at your right hand,
you it will not reach.” (7)

I think this psalm is meant as encouragement for when we feel downtrodden. Obviously there is some hyperbole here: we mortals are still subject to disease and plagues and God-followers certainly die in battle. We certainly could have been among the thousand or ten thousand. Of course then we would not be praising God.

I can think of no finer verses to encounter than when we are feeling lonely and despondent—or threatened by some enormous event such as a natural disaster that we cannot control. Everyone around us may have deserted us, or family and friends may have died from a tragic event or a disease we did not catch, but God is our steadfast protector. In fact, I think this psalm is a good antidote against survivor’s guilt. It is God who protects us, not some random occurrence. But since God remains inscrutable as mere mortals we cannot question why we survived and others around us did not. Rather, we must simply be grateful the fact that God has protected us.

Isaiah 60,61: Like the psalm above, these two chapters are meant as encouragement to the downtrodden, especially the Jews who have been exiled from their homeland. Even though there appears no hope of restoration, God will indeed bring us back together some day, if not right away then certainly at the end of time:
Lift up your eyes and look around;
    they all gather together, they come to you;
your sons shall come from far away,
    and your daughters shall be carried on their nurses’ arms.” (60:4)

Joy will suffuse this reunion and along with joy will come God’s gift of prosperity and power that will be far greater than before:
Then you shall see and be radiant;
    your heart shall thrill and rejoice,
because the abundance of the sea shall be brought to you,
    the wealth of the nations shall come to you.” (60:5)

Isaiah tells us that the national status of restored Israel will be reversed from being downtrodden by other nations to becoming greater than all of them:
Whereas you have been forsaken and hated,
    with no one passing through,
I will make you majestic forever,
    a joy from age to age.
You shall suck the milk of nations,
    you shall suck the breasts of kings;
and you shall know that I, the Lord, am your Savior
    and your Redeemer, the Mighty One of Jacob.” (60:15, 16)

Like the psalm above I think there is hyperbole here that is meant as encouragement, not prediction. We need to be careful to avoid conflating these verses with actual historical events such as the restoration of Israel as a nation in 1949.

It is in chapter 61 that we encounter one of the most encouraging verses in all of the Old Testament as Isaiah reminds us of God’s purpose in intervening in human affairs:
[God] has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed,
    to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
    and release to the prisoners;” (61:1)

As Christians we know exactly how God has accomplished this: through the incarnation, life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. And yet, the world blithely ignores God’s majestic promise, happy to have these words carved into courthouse walls, but always assuming that God is irrelevant or even non-existent. As history demonstrates again and again, humankind is incapable of fulfilling this magnificent promise. Only God through Jesus Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit can accomplish these great things.

And great things they are as Isaiah exults:
I will greatly rejoice in the Lord,
    my whole being shall exult in my God;
for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation,
    he has covered me with the robe of righteousness,
as a bridegroom decks himself with a garland,
    and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels.” (61:10)

And yet we’d rather reject this wonderful promise in favor of maintaining the illusion that we do not need God and that we can control events by our own will. Such is the arrogance of humankind.

Colossians 3:12–25: Just as he did in his letter to the Philippians, Paul is mostly concerned about relationships within the church among believers. His relentless theme is that you have been changed for the better by being saved in Christ, so we should start behaving that way: “As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience.” (12) At the top of the list and receiving special mention is the issue of forgiveness, which like today’s church was apparently in short supply at Colossae: “Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord  has forgiven you, so you also must forgive.” (13) At the root of all actions in the church and among Christians lies one simple thing: “Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony.” (14) So why do we make this simple instruction so hard? As Rob Bell puts it, love wins every time.

As he has done elsewhere, Paul provides instructions for how to worship: “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly; teach and admonish one another in all wisdom; and with gratitude in your hearts sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to God.” (16) I am certainly challenged by Paul’s command to sing with gratitude—and implicitly including songs I don’t like very much.

Paul then turns to describing how these various relationships actually should work: “Wives, be subject to your husbands, as is fitting in the Lord.  Husbands, love your wives and never treat them harshly.” (18) I know that in our supposedly enlightened age of gender equality these words are anathema. And while it’s true that Paul is writing in a very different social context than the one we live in today, his words still have power. Solid relationships require some sort of hierarchical order. Otherwise we end up with the sort of chaos we see on display at the Trump White House.

Also, notice that when he makes these hierarchical announcements, Paul never fails to be reciprocal. If wives are “subject” to their husbands, the husbands in turn must be kind and respectful of their wives. Moreover, husbands are never to be abusive—something far too common today. In our societal quest for total equality and the rise of the cult of individual rights, we have created far greater relational instability than what Paul has on offer here.

Paul goes on to describe the duties and relationship of children and their fathers: “Children, obey your parents in everything,…Fathers, do not provoke your children, or they may lose heart.” (20, 21) Alas,we have seen the fruits of ignoring Paul’s advice in our current epidemic of too many children—especially boys— growing up without fathers and lacking not only fatherly skills themselves, but never really coming to adult maturity. 

Paul writes of the duties of slaves, which advice is pretty irrelevant today. But even though we are not slaves, we would do well to follow his advice as employees and workers: “Whatever your task, put yourselves into it, as done for the Lord and not for your masters.” (23) The question is, do I work for my self-satisfaction or for “the Lord Christ?”

 

Psalm 90; Isaiah 58,59; Colossians 3:1–11

I’ll be writing from Hamilton Beach, Wareham, Massachusetts from today through September 21017…

Psalm 90: This is the only psalm that is attributed to Moses. It contrasts the eternity of God against the mortality of mankind. First, God’s eternity:
O Master, You have been our abode 
in every generation
before mountains were born,
before You spawned earth and world,
from forever to forever You are God.” (2)

I can think of no better way of expressing the concept of infinite time than ‘forever to forever.’

I had always thought the quote in 1 Peter was original with that author, but here it’s clear he was quoting this psalm:
For a thousand years in your eyes
are like yesterday gone,
like a watch in the night.” (4)

We humans are comparable to the short lifespan of grass:
In the morn they are like grass that passes.
In the morning it sprouts and passes,
by evening it withers and dies.” (5b, 6)

I think we would lead richer lives if we acknowledged our mortality. Instead, we have constructed an entire culture built around denial of death. That of course is the logical outcome of thinking we, rather than God, are the center of the universe. The only people who truly understand mortality are those who’ve been diagnosed with a terminal disease.

The psalmist continues as he describes God’s anger at our willful sins, which we try to hide from an all-knowing God rather than seeking his forgiveness:
For we are consumed in Your wrath,
and in Your fury we are dismayed.
You have set our transgressions before You,
our hidden faults in the light of Your face.” (7,8)

In short, we have pretty much wasted the brief gift of time that God has given us:
For all our days slip away in Your anger.
We consume our years like a sigh.” (9)

But the verse that truly resonates with me is the specificity of the years that we have been given. My late friend, Verl, who having turned eighty, quoted this verse many times in his final year as he suffered from Parkinson’s:
The days of our years are but seventy years,
and if in great strength, eighty years.
And their pride is trouble and grief,
and swiftly cut down, we fly off.” (10)

Now that I am seventy, have I wasted the years already given to me? I suppose it really doesn’t matter, does it? We can do nothing about the past. The question is, how am I spending the years that remain? Will I do as the psalmist advises?
To count our days rightly, instruct,
that we may get a heart of wisdom.” (12)

Isaiah 58,59: There’s certainly nothing new about hypocrisy as Isaiah excoriates those who pretend to worship God with sinful hearts, attempting to hide our dishonesty before God:
Look, you serve your own interest on your fast day,
    and oppress all your workers.
Look, you fast only to quarrel and to fight
    and to strike with a wicked fist.” (58:3, 4)

Instead, God is looking for the acts that he has commanded us to do:
Is not this the fast that I choose:
    to loose the bonds of injustice,
    to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
    and to break every yoke?
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
    and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover them,
    and not to hide yourself from your own kin?” (58:6,7)

If we do to others what God has asked us to do for them, we will be rewarded:
The Lord will guide you continually,
    and satisfy your needs in parched places,
    and make your bones strong;
and you shall be like a watered garden,
    like a spring of water,
    whose waters never fail.” (58:11)

There’s a particular warning about observing the sabbath:
If you refrain from trampling the sabbath,
    from pursuing your own interests on my holy day;
if you call the sabbath a delight
    and the holy day of the Lord honorable;
if you honor it, not going your own ways,
    serving your own interests, or pursuing your own affairs;
then you shall take delight in the Lord,
    and I will make you ride upon the heights of the earth.” (58: 13, 14a)

Alas, the sabbath has become the busiest shopping day of the week. Our culture has not only trampled on the sabbath, it has desecrated it. And what have we gained? I give great credit to the Orthodox Jews who seem to be the last remnant of society that truly takes these words to heart.

Isaiah 59 focuses on the consequences of ignoring God’s commands and going our merry way in a state of unforgiven sinfulness:
Rather, your iniquities have been barriers
    between you and your God,
and your sins have hidden his face from you
    so that he does not hear.” (59:2)

What’s described here is essentially the breakdown of civilized society, created by falsehood and conspiracy that ring all too familiar—especially out of Washington DC:
No one brings suit justly,
    no one goes to law honestly;
they rely on empty pleas, they speak lies,
    conceiving mischief and begetting iniquity.
They hatch adders’ eggs,
    and weave the spider’s web;” (59:4, 5a)

Corruption seems to be everywhere and those who say they seek peace but are doing it by ignoring God’s righteousness are deluding themselves:
The way of peace they do not know,
    and there is no justice in their paths.
Their roads they have made crooked;
    no one who walks in them knows peace.”  (59:8)

Notice how justice and peace are intertwined. There can be no peace in an unjust culture as Isaiah outlines the grim conclusion of a dishonest world:
Therefore justice is far from us,
    and righteousness does not reach us;
we wait for light, and lo! there is darkness;
    and for brightness, but we walk in gloom.” (59:9)

What’s really depressing here, though, is how apropos these words are to the world in which we live today. And if we needed a good description of the consequences of how our leadership behaving today, it’s right here:
Therefore justice is far from us,
    and righteousness does not reach us;
we wait for light, and lo! there is darkness;
    and for brightness, but we walk in gloom.
We grope like the blind along a wall,
    groping like those who have no eyes;
we stumble at noon as in the twilight,
    among the vigorous  as though we were dead.” (59:9, 10)

Not only are we groping in darkness, our falsity as a society leads to the same dark consequences that Isaiah saw so many years ago:
Justice is turned back,
    and righteousness stands at a distance;
for truth stumbles in the public square,
    and uprightness cannot enter.” (59:14)

Is this the epitaph that is being written today for America? I am not optimistic about our collective future in a world that has decide God is superfluous at best and non-existent at worst. These two chapters are depressingly contemporary and true—a tocsin for what I think is still to come.

Colossians 3:1–11: But all is not lost. Paul reminds us that for us as individuals there is an antidote to the corruption in our hearts (as the psalmist reminds us) and from that of society (as Isaiah reminds us): “seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth.” (1,2)

Christ has saved us but his salvation demands a response from us: “Put to death, therefore, whatever in you is earthly: fornication, impurity, passion, evil desire, and greed (which is idolatry).” (5) Notice that these qualities are a consequence of salvation, they are not the prerequisites for salvation.

We must take personal responsibility for our actions: “But now you must get rid of all such things—anger, wrath, malice, slander, and abusive language from your mouth.” (8) Paul uses the metaphor of taking off old clothes and putting on new to drive home the transformative nature of salvation through Christ: “Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have stripped off the old self with its practices and have clothed yourselves with the new self.” (9, 10) Notice that the same theme we saw in Isaiah 58—hypocrisy and falsity—is exactly what Paul is explicitly condemning here. We must be truthful with each other because we have put on the clothes of “our new self.”

The consequences of being clothed in Christ rather than in our self-centered will are profound. It is the creation of an entirely new definition of society itself as Paul famously asserts, “In that renewal there is no longer Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free; but Christ is all and in all!”  (11) The challenge for those of us who call ourselves Christian is to set aside our prejudices and honestly accept what Paul is saying here. Alas, I know that I mostly still judge others by outward appearance and status rather than seeing them as my equals in Christ.