When Justice Rolls Down, Don’t Get Swept Away

An address given at the Martin Luther King Jr. Community Celebration
January 16, 2017

Amos 5:24 “But let justice roll down like waters,
and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”

I don’t know about you, but when I look at the world I am often discouraged. It doesn’t take much, if our eyes are open, if our hearts are tender, for us to see the trouble around us. When we watch the news, when we talk with people and hear their stories, we see injustice, oppression and evil. Everywhere we look, there are those with power lording it over the weak. People in authority abusing their positions, and the world applauds or turns away to walk on by. If we are people of compassion, this is troubling.

And I believe it is troubling to God, too. I say this because from beginning to end, we hear God’s prophets speak out on behalf of the oppressed, the powerless, the marginalized of society. Isaiah tells God’s people to stop their noisy pretense of worship and do the right thing. Micah tells God’s people that God’s requirements are simple: justice, mercy, humility. Jesus tells us God has a special relationship to the poor, the grieving, the empty, and the weak. James tells us that true religion is caring for the orphan and widow and holding the world at arm’s length. Revelation invites all who are thirsty to come. God cares about justice.

When our hearts cry out at the brokenness around us, you can be assured that we stand in agreement with the God of the universe, and we can know that we are not alone.

We are not the first people to look around and see that the world’s systems are broken. Tonight we celebrate and honor a man who stood not long ago crying out for justice. Before him marched men and women who called for release from oppression. We’ve been fighting for justice for a long time.

In tonight’s Old Testament reading, Amos the prophet spoke these words that are so familiar to our movements for justice. He says, “Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”

This is our cry for justice. This has been a freedom cry, a battle cry against oppression. We cry out for justice with these words, but did you know that this verse comes in a passage not about foreign oppression of Israel? They are not in the context of deliverance. No, they comes in a passage outlining how the nation God established has itself become an oppressor. The people were calling out for justice, but it was their justice, justice for themselves but not justice for all. This passage details God’s disappointment with God’s people. It is a lament, and a call to repentance. A call to turn from their own ways and to walk in the ways of God.

Tonight, my friends, we need to hear that call for repentance, as well. Repentance simply means a change of mind and heart, a turning from one path to another, to go a different way. All it takes is a glance at the situation where we find ourselves in the world to know that we need to walk in a different way! We need to turn away from oppression and toward justice. We need to turn away from injustice and towards the peace of God. We must turn away from our own solutions that have become idols to the power of God for deliverance.

We have a problem. We have lots of problems, but we have one big problem, one big failure that needs to be laid aside. It is not a new problem, this isn’t a 21st century problem, it’s a human problem. It is as old as Cain and Abel. It is an “us” and “them” problem. We see humanity divided into those who are righteous, like us, and those who are sinners, like them. We can also say we are divided into those who are oppressors, like them, and those who have suffered oppression, like us. This division kills compassion, it kills empathy, and mercy. It divides us and disables us. It leaves us all looking after our own self-interest and forsaking the interests of others.

We want things to be different! We try all kinds of ways to bring about change, we fight wars, we launch campaigns, we protest and lobby. We even lobby for God to get involved. For us, for our rights, for our own sense of righteousness.

We pray for deliverance from oppression, and this is good, but if we stop there, we fall short. What I want to know is do we also pray for deliverance for the oppressor?

Dr. King recognized that the one who oppresses us is also a child of God. They also stand in need of mercy, grace, love, and peace. Through their acts of oppression, they oppress themselves as well. Oppressors need to experience repentance, deliverance, and freedom from their own brand of evil that eats away at their very souls.

That is why Jesus calls us to pray for our enemies, to pray for those who persecute us. He does not say to pray that God would smite them because he knows they are smiting themselves by their own hand. Jesus does not tell us merely to pray for the persecutor, for the oppressor, but to love them. To love our enemies, Jesus says, is to reflect the very nature of God in heaven who sends rain on the just and unjust and the sun to shine on the good person and the evil person alike. Jesus does not pray for God to strike his enemies down, he prays for grace.

Dr. King echoes this call for forgiveness, compassion, and recognition of our shared humanity with those who are oppressors. In his work that we have heard from tonight “Love in Action,” we hear his words commending Christ who prayed, “Father, forgive them. They know not what they do.” Dr. King tells us that Jesus had other choices!

…he could have said, “Father, get even with them” Then he could have said, “Father let loose the mighty thunder- bolts of righteous wrath and destroy them in their tracks.”  Then he could have said, “Father open the flood gates of justice and let the staggering avalanche of retribution pour upon them.” But this was not his response Though subjected to inexpressible agony, though suffering excruciating pain, though despised and rejected, nevertheless, He cries, “Father forgive them.”

Dr. King compels us to see that the injustice towards Christ, the very sinless Son of God, results not in a cry for revenge, but a cry for mercy. Jesus prays for their restoration. He prays for them to be forgiven and returned to a right relationship with their creator. Our nature cries out for revenge, but Christ presents another way, a path of forgiveness and wholeness and truth. The path seems impossibly hard for us! Jesus does not expect us to walk alone, it is a trail that he himself has forged before us, marking the way to peace. Jesus went first, so that we could walk in his footsteps.

I will ask it again, when we pray for deliverance from oppression, do we also pray for deliverance for the oppressor?

This is an important question to ask, not only out of concern for our fellow flawed human beings but for ourselves because:

What if we are participating in the oppression of others?

When we pray for an end to injustice, we must be careful that we are not heaping judgment upon our own heads. The prophet Amos says, “Why are you looking forward to the day of the Lord?” God’s people wanted justice, they wanted the day of the Lord to come so that there would be an end to oppression. But Amos the Prophet tells them they should not pray for it to come quickly because they are also in danger of judgment!

It is all too easy to walk through life blind to the ways in which we ourselves participate in the problems of injustice. Remember that Jesus said, “They know not what they do.” If those men had known that they were driving nails into the hands that shaped the universe, would they have continued? Or would they have fallen on their faces? Would they have cried out for mercy in anguished repentance?

Dr. King tells us:
“We must continue to see the Cross as a magnificent symbol of love conquering hate, and light overcoming darkness  But in the midst of this glowing affirmation, let us never forget that our Lord and Master was nailed to that Cross because of human blindness. Those who crucified him knew not what they did.”

My friends, tonight, I am afraid that if we called for a flood of justice and righteousness, we would ourselves be swept away. How often have we participated in oppression, and systemic injustice blindly? Sometimes that blindness comes from our culture and our media and our politics. We are blinded by rhetoric and celebrity opinion. Many times we have acted in blindness and with good intentions. Dr King says again, “Sincerity and conscientiousness are not enough History has proven that these noble virtues can be relegated to tragic vices There is nothing more dangerous in all the world than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity.”

Maybe more tragic for us than well-intentioned ignorance is that sometimes we choose blindness. We feel justified by our position and our privilege. We believe that our perspective on the world, our good intentions, and our opinions are the only ones that matter. We shut out the views and experiences of others, we refuse to listen. We stubbornly blot out any hint of imbalance or inequality in the experiences of others. We are so convinced that our experience of the world is the right one that when privilege is removed, it feels like we are being oppressed. Remove advantage given to us based on our religion, based on our race, based on our class, and the leveling of the playing field causes us to feel suddenly off-balance. We have walked crooked for so long, when we stand up-right the world itself seems slanted.

Sadly, at other times we face the temptation to participate in injustice justified by our own experience of oppression. “I was oppressed, now I will show them what it feels like to walk with a boot on their neck.” We refuse to forgive. We refuse to follow in the way of mercy. We want more than justice. We are looking for vengeance.

Dr. King has something to say about this:
“Jesus eloquently affirmed from the cross a higher law He knew that the old eye for an eye philosophy would end up leaving everybody blind. He did not seek to overcome evil with evil He overcame evil with good. Although crucified by hate, he responded with a radical love. What a magnificent lesson. Generations will continue to rise and fall, men will continue to worship the god of revenge and bow before the alter of retaliation, but ever and again this noble lesson from Calvary will come as a nagging reminder that only goodness can drive out evil, and only love can conquer hate.”

How can we call for justice to roll down like the mighty waters if we are the ones perpetuating injustice? We must ask for the light of truth to illuminate not only the darkness of our enemies, but our own darkness as well. We must cry out to God both:

Forgive them for they know not what they do…& LORD, forgive us for we know not what we do.

Those we view as oppressors need forgiveness for the ways in which they rend both their own souls and the lives of their victims. They need mercy for the brokenness brought about by ignorance to the reality in which they live. The oppressor does not need to be repressed, the oppressor needs to be regenerated. They need to be redeemed, they need to be renewed in the image of their creator. And so do we.

The truth is that we need freedom, and so do they. Let us not forget that Dr. King so eloquently said, “No one is free until we are all free.”

You and I, friends, we all need the same things. We all need the grace of God that forgives us when we know not what we do. We all desperately need the mercy of Christ who will open our eyes to injustice, not only at the hands of our society, the hands of those in power, but injustice wrought by our own hands in our own families, in our own schools, in our own churches, in our own towns and cities, and in our own hearts.

If we would pray: Forgive them for they know not what they do…LORD, forgive us for we know not what we do, that would make a good start because:

Justice begins with repentance.

 I want to share a story with you to illustrate my point. It goes like this:

There was a man who had a problem. You see this man had a neighbor with a speck in her eye. This speck bothered that man and he was troubled day and night over the inability for that woman to see clearly. He was worried about her family. He was worried about her kids. He was worried about her workplace. He was worried about how this speck, this impediment to her vision would affect her community involvement, her church attendance, her giving to the poor. He was so worried about it that one day—he was determined to help her, you understand—one day he walked over to her house with a first-aid kit. He had tweezers and antibiotic drops and gauze bandages. He was going to help her with her speck, but she would not let him in the door. You see, he had a bigger problem of his own. There was a tree branch stuck in his eye.

Maybe it will be more familiar this way:

Jesus said “Do not judge, so that you may not be judged. For with the judgment you make, you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get. Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye? Or how can you say to your neighbor, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ while the log is in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor’s eye.” Matthew 7:1-5

Justice begins with repentance. It begins with our own repentance. It begins with a recognition that we are all God’s children. That we have all gone astray, each one to their own way. We all need to have our sin-wounds bandaged. We all need to have our feet set on paths of righteousness for God’s name sake and for the sake of our souls. We must have our understanding broadened to see the ways in which we have participated in oppression. We must acknowledge that we have not loved our enemies, we have not prayed for our persecutors, we have not sought God’s peace, but instead we have walked in our own way. We call for justice, but chase vengeance. We call for freedom, while putting others in chains. We call for the healing of our nation and our world, and we think we will get there if we can only convince that “other person” to let us take the speck out of their eye.

Friends, I stand before you and admit, I am guilty. I will confess with the Apostle Paul that I have not already attained all this, nor have I already been made perfect. I do not stand above you as one who is free from this trap. I find myself making an idol of my own causes and methods and heroes and programs. Likewise, I find myself making demons of those who stand opposed. I need to repent, to turn away from my path to the pathway of God that leads to true peace. I want a peace that is not just an absence of conflict, but a peace that restores. I need this peace.

We all need this peace of God that begins at the root of who we are, a healing and a wholeness that leaks out, pouring forth into the lives of others, flowing over the land and filling the whole earth. If we want an end to injustice, we must seek this peace and pursue it in our lives and communities, increasing the health of our bodies and the justice in our society. We can only find this peace in a person, the Prince of Peace himself, the embodiment of the Divine who showed us how to walk in peace regardless of the absence of peace in the world around us.

This is how I want to see God’s justice roll down, not in a wave of destruction, but as a well of living water bubbling up from within to bring healing to nations, starting right here. It can start right now, in our hearts, in our homes and our churches and our community!

Our nation may be like God’s people of old, a people freed from tyranny turning that tyranny on others. But there is hope. There is hope in each one who will turn away from injustice and cry out for mercy. There is hope every time two or three gather to pray for release for the oppressed and restoration of the oppressor. There is hope when we recognize our common humanity and humbly seek restoration in ourselves as well as the world around us.

Then, and only then, we can pray for God’s justice to roll down like a mighty water, then we can call forth righteousness like an ever-flowing stream, and we can be confident in that day that we are already moving in the flow of those waters, and we will have no fear of being swept away.

 

 

Advertisements

No unclean thing

This year I decided to read through the Bible in a year. I regularly read and study scripture to preach and teach, but It had been a while since I read straight through. Sometimes I read the portions, and other times it is more convenient to listen to the audio version. This practice really helps me to keep the words and stories of scripture in their broader context.

A few months in to the daily readings I had reached the stories of the Exodus and entering the Promised Land. I typically like to read these stories. They tend to be full of adventure although at times the numbers and counting of people and animals gets tedious. I found myself sighing and wondering why it was important to know that there were 54,400 descendants of Issachar among the other numbers of other tribes in the Desert of Sinai? I saw that in part it is important because each of those lives is celebrated as a gift and blessing from God.

Later, as I read through the book of Numbers, I came across a passage with more accounting and it stopped me in my tracks.

The half share of those who fought in the battle was:
337,500 sheep, of which the tribute for the Lord was 675;
36,000 cattle, of which the tribute for the Lord was 72;
30,500 donkeys, of which the tribute for the Lord was 61;
16,000 people, of whom the tribute for the Lord was 32.
Numbers 31:36-40

Did you read that?!?!?!

I dropped my Bible and literally said out loud “What the heck, God?”

How could God accept human captives as tribute? How is it that the descendants of the 12 tribes were celebrated and these lives were treated like cattle? I was completely gob-smacked! Understanding the cultural setting, I know that these were warring people who battled here, there, and everywhere on their way to and through Canaan. I get that it was a violent age with different norms and expectations. But I also believe that God is the same then, and now. So, seriously, “What the heck, God?”

Sitting in my discomfort and pondering this God whom I serve with my life and career, I came to a realization. Words so clear and distinct, God could have said them out loud, in a calm, flat tone. “There is no untainted offering.”

I really don’t know about you, but I was offended. Of course there are untainted offerings! My offerings are untainted! Mine come from a pure heart, clean hands, and a desire to glorify God alone. How dare God say that my offerings are not pure.

Then I stopped and pondered for a moment, are they? Are my offerings pure? My money comes from the church, I give it back to the Lord in multiple ways by supporting other ministries, missionaries, and feeding the poor. That money comes from the hands of people who work hard in our community, in businesses and service professions. When I though deeper, I wondered: do I really know all the threads that support those earnings? Could there be anyone in those businesses cutting corners, or defaulting on loans, or choosing inferior products, possibly made by slave labor? I have no control over who gives to the church or where their gifts come from.

Well, maybe my financial gifts can’t be entirely accounted for, but surely my service can. I love on people, it is kind of my specialty. Listening, gently nudging at times, but mostly delighting in the people God has made fuels my ministry. I do it all for God, right? But I love it, too. Maybe sometimes I relish people’s dependence on me. It might even feed a little bit of pride.

Oh, and speaking of pride, sometimes I obsess over my sermons and musical offerings, or get worried when people might not be responding to me in the way I want…Ok, so maybe my offerings aren’t 100% pure. But are they really comparable to human trafficking?

When I buy cheap clothes made by underpaid or forced labor.
When I drink coffee picked by today’s equivalent of serfs.
When I eat chocolate most likely from cacao harvested by children.

Can I really claim to be exempt or superior?

And here we are, back to why would God accept our dirty, scratched, and broken offerings. Grace.

God knows we are dust. God knows we don’t have anything else to offer. God knows our inability to produce holiness, righteousness, and purity on our own.

The only untainted offering is God stepping out of eternity to dwell among human beings as a human being. The only untainted offering is God smiling at the child, the leper, the outcast, the prostitute through the eyes of Jesus. The only untainted offering is God still loving as humanity sentenced him to the death penalty, carried out by the hands of the state. The only untainted offering is God returning to those who had fled from his side for fear of their own safety. Building the church with imperfect people. Sustaining it through millennia using lives and resources also bearing the marks of sin.

Accepting my gifts. Accepting yours. Seeing us for all we are, and loving us. God’s grace is the only untainted offering, and it is something He offers to Us.

These thoughts are humbling, but hopeful. For me, knowing that God will continue to be the giver of every good and perfect gift sets me free from the chains of perfection. The only gift I have to offer is myself, and God himself can take this imperfect gift and make it whole. I am a work in progress, but even now at times God’s grace moves through me to pour into the lives of others.

Next time I am tempted to judge the offering of another, I will remember: the remarkable event I am witnessing is not one of a gift being offered to God, but that God in his grace and mercy accepts that gift–scuffs, stains and all.

Acceptance & Grace
What could be more ReFreshing?

Fundamentals—How Now Shall I Live?

 

We’ve been asking the question for millennia.

How do I live my life? What is the guiding principle behind the decisions I make?

Facebook Responses How do I live

We struggle, even those who have considered carefully how we should live. We don’t always know how to apply the moral and ethical ideals that drive us. We are not always going to get it right, but we are called to walk in love, to seek the good of others, to serve them and seek to honor them.

Humility is Key

In the book of the prophet Micah, the question is asked how do I approach God to please him?

With what shall I come before the Lord and bow down before the exalted God?
Shall I come before him with burnt offerings…Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousand rivers of olive oil…?
He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you?
To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.
Micah 6:6-8

God is not interested in our appeasement or sacrifices. God desires that we walk in humility and love each other.

This is a problem for me, because I love to be right. There is nothing I want more than to always be right about everything in every conversation and every argument, and make every right choice. Always.

Except I am not, and neither are you. We can be assured that on some points, we will get it wrong. From time to time we will each believe and say and do wrong things. There are no exceptions, which is why it is so important to walk in humility and grace that sets us free.

Liberty.
Christian liberty is to be granted in all areas not essential to one’s final salvation. Due to human imperfection there are differences of faith and practice among God’s children, but they anticipate a time of greater unity in the faith. Until that time there must be unity in essentials but liberty in non-essentials, with love in all things.
EFC-MAYM Faith and Practice

Giving up power & position

Humility is a daily attitude recognizing that our status is not the most important thing. It doesn’t matter if I have an impressive title or great reputation if all I do is serve my own self interest. We are called to follow God’s example of using our gifts, talents, and resources to serve others.

In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:
Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant…
Philippians 2:5-7

Choosing to love

Our humility, our service, our lives are empty if we do not act in love. Love is not a fuzzy feeling or something that drifts with our moods. Love is a desire and determination to seek the good of the loved one. Love means choosing to do good for someone even if you disagree.

Follow God’s example, therefore, as dearly loved children  and walk in the way of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.
Ephesians 5:1-2

God calls us to join in the work of reconciliation, to join in actively seeking the good of our neighbor along with ourselves and our world. It begins with humility and it looks like love.

 

 

 

 

 

Fundamentals—Salvation

When Christians talk about salvation, we often give the impression that it is a moment in time in which we flip a switch that means we will go to Heaven when we die. While I believe Heaven is important, salvation is bigger than what happens when we die.

In the last Fundamentals post, we looked at humanity and sin. Sin broke our good relationship with God, with our fellow humans, and with creation. Salvation brings an opportunity for restoration of those relationships as well.

Walking with God

God has always wanted to walk with us. He created us to be in relationship with himself. In the days of the Garden, he walked with the man and woman in the cool of the day. It was his habit. Through the times of chaos, the patriarchs, and the early law, God reached out for fellowship. The Old Testament writers spoke again and again about a time when God would write his law on our hearts and the need for external coercive measures would fall away. A time of restored relationship with God, and a renewed sense of fellowship with him.

Jesus came, announcing a fulfillment of prophecy and the nearness of God’s Kingdom.
“The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand…” The response that Jesus calls for is repentance and belief.

Repentance is a concept that gets a lot of bad press. At it’s core, though, it is simply a call to change your mind and change your direction. We do it all the time without even thinking about it. I was using a particular brand of laundry soap, it gave me hives, so I repented of using that soap and switched to one that didn’t.

Photo by linder6580

Photo by linder6580

My daughter had a choir concert out of town a while back. It was important that we get there on time for the rehearsal because I was driving 2 other girls to this event. I followed the directions and couldn’t find it. I drove back and forth, up and down the same street for a half mile in both directions and couldn’t find it. Finally I rechecked the directions and realized I had turned right when I should have turned left. I repented and went back to where I made the wrong turn and took the right one. We got there right on time.

The story of humanity making a wrong turn at the tree of the knowledge of good and evil begins with an idea that we need to be more like God. There is just one problem.

Only God can be God.

We’ve displaced God, taking on the role of owner of creation and judge over ourselves and others. We’ve often trashed creation, and we do a terrible job of judging rightly. We tend to see our wants as needs, and the mistakes of others as much greater than our own. Salvation begins the process of restoring God to his rightful place in every aspect of our lives.DSC00977

Relationships Healed

The way to restoration in our relationships is taking on a new view of self and others. A realistic view that Jesus talks about in his parable about the speck of dust and the log. The Holy Spirit helps us discern where we’ve gone wrong and begins to form in us the ability to see through the lens of grace. We have to know who we are in our brokenness and receive God’s healing grace for ourselves when we find we are not able to live up to a perfect standard. Only then can we begin to extend that same grace to others. That is how we find healing in ourselves, forgiveness for our mistakes and the ability to offer the same healing forgiveness to others.

DSC00889

Creation Care

In the beginning we had a job to do. We were to be stewards of creation. When we walk in sin, that relationship is broken as well. Paul says that creation cries out for redemption. It is our job as Christians not only to administer grace to our fellow human beings, but to care about all of creation. That means asking God how we can participate in stewarding creation in our daily lives. It means caring about things like waste of resources, mistreatment of animals, and even climate change.

You and I can’t fix these things on our own, and that is not our job. But it is our job to care and to do what we can to manage this gift well.

God desires to do more than give you a ticket to heaven. God wants to bring restoration to your daily life, your relationships, and the whole earth.

For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.  For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.” John 3:16-17

 

Below is the statement on salvation from our regional Faith and Practice.

Salvation.

Salvation is a personal matter between people and their Maker. It consists of forgiveness for sins as well as sanctification or the cleansing of sinful human nature. People can be redeemed because of the atoning death of Jesus Christ and the direct work of the Spirit. The Holy Spirit restores people to fellowship with God the Father and enables them to love Him wholeheartedly. Salvation does not depend on outward ceremonies or symbols. Sanctification is the work of God which is accomplished through the baptism with the Holy Spirit in the life of a believer who is yielded totally to God. The believer is thus empowered to witness to the living Christ. Sanctification is both an act in which one’s heart is cleansed and a process in which the life is continuously disciplined to God’s holy standards.

Fundamentals—Humanity

With the topic of the human condition we inevitably include the issue of sin. Don’t click away! This isn’t your average bash-you-over-the-head discussion of sin.

I asked my Facebook friends for questions they ponder about humanity and sin.

Facebook Questions Sin

To begin to understand humanity we have to start with creation.

Then God said, “Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.”
…God saw all that he had made, and it was very good.
Genesis 1:26, 31

God caps off creation by making people, and surveying all that was made, issues a declaration that it is “Very Good!” I don’t know about you, but I haven’t met anyone yet who would look at the world and say that everything is just as it should be. We may have different views of what would make a perfect world, but we all agree, this isn’t it.

If we keep reading, we find a story about why all is not right with the world. It tells of man and woman going outside the will of God in effort to become more like God. The temptation was to see creation as incomplete, especially in regard to just how much divinity was instilled in humanity. The result? Relationships were broken and fear was born.

Mutiny and the Beginning of the Blame Game

Then the man and his wife heard the sound of the Lord God as he was walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and they hid from the Lord God among the trees of the garden. But the Lord God called to the man, “Where are you?”
Genesis 3:8-9

God came walking in the garden, and the people hid. When asked what happened to change their relationship, the man points the finger at the woman and at God.

“The woman you put here with me—she did it. It’s her fault!”

And the woman passed the buck to a fellow creature.

“It was the serpent! He did it!”

The writer of Genesis tells us in detail what our brokenness looks like. Distance from God. Disturbance in our relationships with self & others. Fighting for survival in a hostile world.

We still see the same things thousands of years later. And we are still playing the blame game. There’s just this one nagging problem.

We have no Leg to Stand On

One thing we all agree on regarding sin is of course which sin is the worst, right?

Somebody else’s.

Ask anyone and they can tell you why their mistakes are understandable, their choices justified, and why that person over there is a big-fat-sinner. You might think this is the official position of the church, but the writer of Romans disagrees:

You, therefore, have no excuse, you who pass judgment on someone else, for at whatever point you judge another, you are condemning yourself, because you who pass judgment do the same things…do you show contempt for the riches of his kindness, forbearance and patience, not realizing that God’s kindness is intended to lead you to repentance?
Romans 2:1-4

By sitting in judgment over others, we go back to that first temptation to put ourselves in God’s place! And we don’t do a very good job of responding to failure with kindness, forbearance and patience. We don’t even respond to our own sin in that way. By seeking to justify our actions, we just bury the lead that sin is sin because it is destructive. Wounds need to be cared for with kindness and our sin needs to be addressed with grace.

Repentance is built on an acknowledgment that we are wounded and in need of care. It is literally translated as a change of mind. We change our minds, our attitudes about the choices we are making. Instead of duct-taping that gash on our leg and crossing our fingers that gangrene doesn’t set in, let’s go to the doctor and get some actual medical help!

Our Attitude Should Be Humble

Especially those who are Christians, we have received nothing from God but kindness and patience, who are we to condemn someone else? The Apostle Paul has a great take on sin. I think it needs to become our new Christian talking point in regard to sin.

Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the worst.
1 Timothy 1:15

Not because we are worthless, but because we know better and choose to wound ourselves and others anyway. We have great value as image-bearers of God, and we are ALL worthy of spiritual healthcare. When we choose to see our failure as worse than the person in front of us, and we know that God has responded to us with grace, we are better situated to dispense that grace freely as well. If God has forgiven my sin and accepted me as a full heir of Heaven, God can accept anyone.

Sin describes where we go wrong, but it is not the end of the story. It isn’t even the biggest part of the story. Would you find it refreshing if I told you that what is broken can be restored? What if it is God’s dream to make it all “Very Good” again? Check out the next post in this series on Salvation.

Fundamentals—What about the Bible?

What we believe about the Bible is important because it is the basis of the Christian faith. It is the record of encounters between God and humankind. The Bible records words from God and man about who God is and what it means to put one’s trust in God.

I reached out again on Facebook, since last week brought such a good response. This time, the questions came from entirely different people, which is super.

Here is what they wanted to know:

Facebook Responses Questions about the Bible
What great questions. This week the questions came from those dedicated to following Jesus. Their questions reflect their knowledge of scripture, and their honest wrestling with how we apply a book written over the span of a thousand years and finished nearly two thousand years ago.

A lot changes over the course of three thousand years. There is a huge difference between the culture and daily lives of people leaving Egypt and those driving SUV’s down the freeway to the directions of their GPS-enabled smart phones. We can’t answer all of these questions in one sitting. What we can do is take a basic look at what the Bible is and what the Bible is not, and what the Bible’s purpose is in our lives.
Here is what the EFC-MAYM Faith and Practice has to say about the Bible:

The Bible.
The Holy Bible was given by the direct inspiration of God. It is sufficient to inform people of salvation through faith in Jesus Christ. The Bible is the written authority by which all guidance should be measured for truth. God’s Holy Spirit, who inspired the Scriptures, also interprets them, working through those yielded to Him within His Church. Genuine guidance from God is in accord with the Holy Scriptures.

Practically speaking, the Bible is made up of 66 Books, written by about 40 authors, all telling us One Message about One God. Like a mosaic, the bible writers all give us a different angle, different point of view in history, but all coming together to show us a glimpse of our God interacting with human beings.

Not a magic book.

The Bible does not exist to give us magic formulas for making life what we want it to be. There is no magic prayer or special verse that we can say to get what we want instantly.

It is not a book of magical words. It is not a book of secret power. It is not a book by which the full might and power of God is placed at our disposal. It is not a book where the ability to quote a few verses will help you defeat all temptations, persevere under every trial, and break down every stronghold.
–Jeremy Myers https://redeeminggod.com/bible-is-not-a-magic-book

There is power at our disposal, but it is not in the words of the Bible, rather in the Spirit who inspired the words of the Bible. God inspired the scriptures and enlightens our minds to understand the scriptures, and God uses the scriptures today in many ways to continue communicating his message to the world. The Bible is important, but it is not magic.

Not a mere book of fairy tales. The pictures we are given of people in the pages of the Bible are very real. They are flawed human beings who have extraordinarily difficult lives. But they also have real divine encounters that change their lives, and their communities.

Not a history book or a science book. The Bible was not primarily written to give us what we would consider in our modern mindset to be scientific or historic information. Instead, everything in the Bible was written to point us to God.

A book with a purpose. The Bible has a singular purpose, to reveal the heart of God to mankind and invite a response. From creation to revelation, there is a great arcing story of God creating, reaching out for fellowship, forming a covenant, providing redemption, and drawing people to himself.

A book with a past. Some of the most common questions I encounter about the Bible have to do with what is included and what is not included in our Bible. The Old Testament and New Testament were assembled differently.
The early Church leaders in the third century came together to put in place a canon—a measuring rod for what they accepted as true about Jesus and the Church. In this process, they examined many writings and used some basic criteria to determine whether they should be included in the new collection of books that would become the New Testament.

1. Apostolic – The book must be written by an apostle, or a ministry partner of one.
2. Orthodox – The book must agree with the the accepted and approved teachings of the church.
3. Christocentric – The book must focus on the person and work of Jesus Christ, especially in relation to His redemptive work on the cross for the world.
4. Inspiration – The book must have the qualities and characteristics of the divinely inspired Word of God.
5. Testimony of the Holy Spirit – The church authorities felt the inner witness of the Holy Spirit in helping them select certain books.
6. Acceptance by the Church – The book must already be widely accepted and used by the majority of churches.
https://redeeminggod.com/canonization-of-scripture/

Lawrence H. Schiffman writes a good article on the formation of the Jewish canon at MyJewishLearning. The Old Testament was formed in parts, and with much less formal deliberation, rather the texts that were found to be valuable were kept and others were allowed to fall away. A canon of the Old Testament among Jewish communities was basically in place by 70 AD, and more formally by about 150 AD. When Jesus walked the earth, most Jewish scholars would have agreed on the books that were most important for teaching about God.

Knowing how the books of the Bible were put together takes away some of the mystery. This is ok. It helps us remember that while the Bible is inspired by God, it does not contain God. God does not live in this book. God is not limited to this book. God is active and alive and moving in our lives today. It can be tempting to make an idol of the Bible.

Not an idol. The Bible is not to be worshipped, rather it is to be studied. Not to gain knowledge that puffs up, but as a path that leads to greater understanding of the true Word of God, Jesus. Jesus offers this rebuke in John, and I think it is all too valid today, John 5:39-40 “You study the Scriptures diligently because you think that in them you have eternal life. These are the very Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life.” The scriptures, both Old and New Testaments are only beneficial to us if they lead us to God.

Not defined by cherry-picked verses. The Bible is not primarily something for us to pick and stitch together proof-texts for theological arguments. There is no commandment “Thou shalt be right.” We find instructions to read and study, but we are never told that we must or even can have all the right answers. Admission to the Kingdom is never dependent on a quiz, rather on our relationship with God and our faithfulness to follow the example of Christ.

Reveals God’s identity. The Bible shows us God’s character so that we may become ever more “children of our Father in Heaven” as Jesus put it. The stories we read by what people did right and what they did really badly, they teach us how to live our lives to honor our connection with God.

Trustworthy guide to living a good life. The Bible offers us principles by which we can live in whole and healthy ways. These principles show us a path to shalom, a peace with God, with ourselves, and with others. Not every command is valid for every person in every generation, but the themes we find again and again give us a path to peace. Welcoming the stranger. Generosity to the poor. Making time to rest. Honoring our family. Speaking the truth. Living with integrity. Loving God. Loving others.

Measuring rod. The canon gives us a tool to measure our experience. If what we hear is not consistent with what we find in the whole counsel of scripture, we need to question its validity. If we believe God is directing us and the directions do not align with what we read of God’s character and heart in the Bible, we need to ask again.

In order to have a complete picture of who God is and what God desires of us, we cannot depend on a verse or two.  We must study the whole Bible and learn from the whole council of scripture. What we read in the Old Testament can help us understand what is going on in the New Testament. What we know about God through the person of Jesus, who we see in the Gospels, can help shed light on God’s actions in the Old Testament. When we study the whole of scripture, we find consistently that God is continually reaching out toward imperfect human beings to draw them to himself. Themes of redemption, forgiveness, and love blanket the pages of scripture. You may not find all of them on every page, but when you put them all together the picture comes together.