How God Often Works: A Case Study

16Who rises up for me against the wicked?
Who stands up for me against evildoers?
17If the LORD had not been my help,
my soul would soon have lived in the land of silence.
18When I thought, “My foot slips,”
your steadfast love, O LORD, held me up.
19When the cares of my heart are many,
your consolations cheer my soul.

–Psalm 94.16-19 (ESV)

If you read any of my posts, you will know that I am keen on urging everyone to put their faith, hope, and trust in God. We live in the desert, a common biblical metaphor that describes our having to live in a broken and often hostile world, and if Christians cannot count on God to help and sustain them as we struggle to live faithful and obedient lives, that faith will surely be destroyed.

But God does not abandon us and I want to share with you a recent experience that I think illustrates very well one way in which God commonly works to support and sustain those who put their hope and trust in him. As the psalmist reminds us today, life is hard and we can get beaten down and beaten up pretty easily. So our fears and anxieties are nothing new to the human experience. They have been with us for as long as humans have lived in a fallen world.

This past Sunday as I was sitting with my wife on our patio enjoying the nice afternoon, it suddenly came to my mind that I should email a note of encouragement to one of my friends. The impulse was quite strong and it came out of the clear blue. I resisted doing so initially because my friend is typically not real receptive to receiving encouragement from others and I did not want him fussing at me for writing him. So I delayed acting on this impulse until early evening, even though it stuck in my mind and kept nagging at me to get it done.

Soon after I wrote my friend that evening, he replied and thanked me for my note. Unbeknownst to me, he apparently had suffered a bad couple of days of late and was feeling beaten down. He didn’t get specific with me but I could tell by the tone of his email that he was genuinely appreciative that I had sent him a note of encouragement.

Let me be clear here. I am not tooting my own horn. In fact, it’s precisely the opposite. This was clearly God’s hand at work, using me to help one of God’s faithful people deal with a lot of crap in his life at the moment. I was simply a poor schlep whom God used as a vehicle of encouragement for my beleaguered friend.

Then yesterday, my friend called and read me another note of encouragement that he had received out of the blue and had found encouragement in reading it. Do you see what is going on here? This is how God typically works in and through his people. He uses all sorts of folks, Christian and otherwise, to help support and sustain his embattled people (and let’s not make any mistake here: trying to live a faithful and obedient life is a struggle because there are lots of forces out there who hate Christians and their Lord).

The critic would suggest that all this is coincidence. But I have no interest in arguing that because neither of us can prove his position. However, I have had things like this happen to me too many times and have seen it happen to others too many times for me to believe stuff like this is coincidence. This is God at work in and through his people to comfort and encourage them and I am absolutely blown away by the fact that God would use someone like me to bring encouragement to my faithful friend. That is simply amazing. And yes, I think my friend very much appreciated seeing God at work to bring him some much needed encouragement at precisely the time when he needed some. That is the coolest thing of all!

If you ever wonder where God is in the midst of the dark times in your life, stop and consider this story. Chances are God is in the person who has reached out to you to offer you support or who tells you they love you. God is speaking to you through the people who show you concern and compassion, even as they are struggling to deal with all the bad stuff in their own lives. God is in the midst of those who give tirelessly of themselves as they serve their Lord by serving others, especially those who do not deserve any of it. God is in the touch of your loved one who reaches out to you when you are feeling particularly alone. The list is endless but you get the idea.

This is how God typically works. He has called humans to be stewards of his creation and has given us the gift of life in Jesus. But we have to be smart enough to accept the gift by faith. When we do, it changes us and opens our eyes. We know that God is infinitely wise and powerful. We also know that God has chosen to reveal that wisdom and power by becoming human and dying on a cross for us. That is not how the world defines power, but it is how God defines it. When we understand this, we learn to look for God’s power in the midst of our weakness and if we pay attention, we will find God in the actions of those around us whom God uses to provide for us exactly what we need.

I confess that I don’t often get it right in the “being faithful” category. But this time I did (perhaps that is why God’s prompt to me was so hard to miss–he knows with whom he is dealing). It is a wondrous and awesome privilege to be used by the Creator of this vast universe to be of some help to my friend (whom God has used to be a great help and encourager to me when I needed it.) If you open yourself up to God’s Presence in your life and are willing to answer his call to you to bring his great love to bear on his hurting creatures, you too can discover the joy of being Jesus’ agent of healing and New Creation. There is nothing like it in the whole world.

What? Me Worry? (Apologies to Alfred E. Neuman)

25 “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes? 26 Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? 27 Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life? 28 “And why do you worry about clothes? See how the flowers of the field grow. They do not labor or spin. 29Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these. 30 If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith? 31 So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ 32 For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. 33 But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. 34 Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.

–Matthew 6.25-34 (NIV)

In today’s lesson, is Jesus telling us to adopt a care-free, nonchalant attitude (don’t worry, be happy, man)? Not exactly. What our Lord is telling us to do is to not have excessive anxiety about the things that can only bring nominal or marginal value to life. This is clearly not the same as taking care of business so that we do our part to make sure our needs are met. For example, it won’t do to pray to God to provide food for us and then sit home on our duff and not work or seek work. It doesn’t work that way. God has created humans to be stewards of his creation and I’ve yet to meet a steward who sits back and does nothing at all.

What Jesus is reminding us about is God’s ability to provide for our real needs and what those real needs are. God does indeed do that but the trouble is many of us don’t believe that or trust God to do so, in part, because we haven’t got a clue about what constitutes a real human need. We get locked into certain ideas about what we really need and that usually involves having lots of material stuff. Yes, we all have material needs (food, water, clothing, shelter, etc.). But we also have spiritual and emotional needs. Trouble is many of us discount those needs and what we need to do to secure them so that we focus almost exclusively on our material needs. When that happens, you can be confident that excessive anxiety is sure to follow. If you don’t believe me, take a look at the stock market’s behavior. It runs on fear and anxiety as much as anything and is therefore about as fickle as it comes. Give stock brokers an inch to worry about and they will take a mile. Unfortunately, it’s just the nature of the business.

But our Lord will have none of that. He reminds us today what constitutes real life is our relationship with God, a relationship in which we love him first above everything (and everyone) else, and in which we serve others as a way of showing God we really do love him. In other words, if we are going to have a relationship with God, we had best be prepared to be his agents of healing and New Creation that he calls us to be. That means we have to focus on setting right priorities and trusting God to help us meet our needs.

Again, we have to do our part. We have to work and put forth the appropriate effort on projects. But the key is to pick appropriate projects, and spending undo energy and anxiety on things that cannot provide life or help make us more human are not worth our time and effort. We remember Jesus’ parable about the rich man who thought he had it made, only to be told by God on the day of the man’s retirement that his life would come to an end that very night. I haven’t met too many people on their deathbed who have lamented that they should have worked harder or spent less time with family and friends or made more money or screwed more people to secure their own selfish needs. I doubt you have either.

All this requires great faith and trust on our part, and we will not likely be willing to give that to God if we do not know him or what he is capable of producing. We humans have the unfortunate tendency to want to bring God down to our level, in part, because we want to play God ourselves. When we do that, we perforce limit our ability to trust God because in the back of our mind we realize that humans are fallible and prone to error. If we make God into our own image, we really will never be able to trust God or believe he has the power to provide for our real needs because we know the human condition only too well. That is a real shame because we rob ourselves of real meaning, purpose, and joy in life.

If you don’t believe that, take a look at the prison letters Paul wrote to the churches he founded in his day. Start with Philippians and keep in the front of your mind that Paul wrote what he did while he was in chains and unsure if he would ever see the light of day again. Despite Paul’s condition, you cannot help but see the trust and joy that exudes from that letter. It is a letter of encouragement and hope, and it was written by a prisoner who was unjustly imprisoned for Jesus’ sake. Yet Paul knew that he was in God’s care and he considered his situation a privilege. Not many of us are where Paul was, either in terms of his faith or his physical location when he wrote the prison letters. But Paul knew the secret of real life and would surely have agreed with what Jesus tells us in today’s lesson.

What about you? What are you worried about today? I am not talking about the daily worries and burdens we all must bear because we live in a broken and sin-marred world. As Jesus reminds us, those worries and cares will come whether we are faithful or not because we all have responsibilities in this life. Instead, what I am talking about are the worries and cares that we add needlessly to our plate. Are you worried more about how to accumulate for yourself things that cannot possibly enrich you and bring you life or are you worried (i.e., focused) more about how to live your life with meaning, purpose, joy, hope, and power? If the latter concerns you more than the former, then pay attention to what Jesus is telling you here and about how Paul and countless other great saints lived (and live) their lives. Sooner or later, you will be able to join with that great poster boy from Mad magazine, Alfred E. Neuman, and say, “What? Me Worry?” Of course you aren’t anxious about the stuff that doesn’t matter. You are in God’s good care and you have learned the secret of real living, despite that fact that each day brings its own legitimate worries and cares. And if you listen carefully, you will be able to hear Paul clanking his chains in approval.

Making a Difference for God: Lessons from Two Communities

In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

As we enter our second week of worship services here in our new place at Hondros College, I want to remind us again of our call and mission. Our mission statement here at St. Augustine’s is pretty short and to the point: Changed by God to make a difference for God. But what does that mean? What does it look like and how do we get there? We have a unique opportunity to build a church culture from the ground up so that we really can live out our mission statement. But along with that wonderful opportunity come some very real challenges, both from outside St. Augustine’s and from within. This morning I want to look briefly at those internal challenges and what our OT and Epistle lessons can teach us about what we need to do and what we need to avoid to become a church that turns heads and makes a difference.

In today’s OT lesson, we see that God’s people are up to their old tricks again. Last week we saw how they grumbled for food while in the wilderness and how God graciously provided for them, giving them exactly what they needed. Today we read that God’s people are now grumbling about a lack of water. At first blush this sounds like a reasonable complaint. After all, they are in the wilderness and without water they will die. But a closer look reveals that there are deeper issues involved here, the same issues we saw at work in God’s people from last week’s lesson. What we are really seeing is human pride rearing its ugly head and making God’s people grumble, ostensibly against Moses and Aaron, but really against God. Simply put, the grumblers wanted to be back in slavery in Egypt. They were convinced they had a better plan for their lives and destiny than did God.

That human pride is involved here instead of a real concern for water should be obvious, given the fact that the grumbling apparently comes on the heels of God’s gracious and ongoing provision for his people as they wander in the wilderness. God had delivered his people from slavery through a mighty act of power and had provided for their every need. But this apparently wasn’t good enough for some of the folks. They were impatient to get where they thought they deserved to be and if God’s schedule didn’t mesh with theirs, they wanted to return to slavery. In the meantime they grumbled and dissension ensued. Sound familiar?

But as Paul reminds us in today’s Epistle lesson, this is not how God’s people are to behave. Why? Because we have been given God’s Spirit to live in and among us. When that happens, it changes us fundamentally, not usually all at once but gradually and over time. Like God did for his people Israel when he rescued them from their slavery in Egypt, God has rescued us from our slavery to sin and death by becoming human and dying on a cross for us. As the prophet Isaiah reminds us, the punishment Jesus bore brought us peace, both with God and each other, and by his wounds we are healed (Isaiah 53.5b), thanks be to God!

We believe this by faith, not a blind faith but an informed faith, and faith always manifests itself in action. We believe God has done the impossible for us and so we respond to his great love for us by faithful obedience. As Jesus reminds us in today’s Gospel lesson, our obedience is the only real indicator of our love for God. God looks for our actions, not our lip service. And so we are called by God to be his people and his agents of New Creation in which we bring God’s love to bear in Jesus to his broken and hurting world and people.

And as Paul reminds us in today’s Epistle lesson, it all begins with unity in Christ because unity in Christ is made possible only by the grace of God and the power of his Spirit working in and through us. Our unity is a visible and powerful demonstration to the world that we are God’s. By contrast, if we don’t have unity (which is different from uniformity), it is almost always an indication that we are letting our pride control our behavior rather than having the humility to submit to God’s good will for his people. When that happens we will inevitably have dissension because pride is essentially selfish, which will always cause discord. And when we have dissension we are just like the rest of the world and nobody will ever pay any attention to us or believe our claim that we are changed by God so that we can make a difference for God.

So what does any of this have to do with St. Augustine’s and our mission statement? Just this. Our mission statement implies that ministry is something in which every Christian engages, not just yours truly. We believe this because we believe God calls all his people, not just some, to bring Jesus’ healing love and redemption to his world, and this is costly. It takes our time and effort. It will mean suffering on our part. You cannot help others bear their burdens and sorrows and not suffer in the process.

This is precisely where unity and humility come into play as Paul reminds us. When we have a humble spirit, we instinctively understand that Christian ministry is hard work and this will inevitably lead us to be supporters and encouragers of each other. When that happens, all of a sudden we discover that we are enjoying the fruit of being one with each other in Christ. And when that happens, we will discover that we are being equipped by the Spirit to do the work he calls us to do.

A humble spirit also reminds us that we are using our respective gifts to serve the same Lord rather than our own agendas. Paul comments extensively on the variety of gifts the Spirit gives to his people in 1 Corinthians 12 and I encourage you to check that out on your own. What is important here is to remember that a humble spirit will necessarily lead us to honor the gifts, needs, and ministries of all our fellow believers. This, in turn, helps us resist the temptation to compare our gifts and our ministries with what others are doing (or not doing) or to think our ministries are the center of the universe. And that is the surest antidote to grumbling and the dissension it causes.

We won’t be saying things like, “Look at all the things I do for this church and others. Why don’t the rest of these knuckleheads step up and do their share?” Assuming others are doing some kind of ministry, if we catch ourselves thinking or making statements like this, our pride has gotten the better of us and we are surely just like the grumblers among God’s people in the wilderness in today’s OT lesson. Instead, when by the Spirit’s help we have developed a humble spirit we will be content to focus on how our own work is serving the Lord rather than how it stacks up in comparison to others.

That is why Paul tells us to look to the example of Christ so that we understand what humility looks like and imitate it in our life and ministries. That is also why Paul tells us to work out our own salvation in fear and trembling. Paul isn’t advocating some kind of salvation by self-help. He is reminding us that we are responsible for our relationship with God and how we conduct ourselves as Christians. In other words, Paul is reminding us that we have to do our part to develop the Christian virtues of faith, hope, and love, the very virtues that the Spirit uses to help us develop a healthy dose of humility.

And as we develop a humble spirit, we instinctively understand that Christian ministry is hard work and that will inevitably lead us to be supporters and encouragers of each other. When that happens, all of a sudden we discover that we are enjoying the fruit of being one with each other in Christ. And when that happens, we will discover that we are being equipped by the Spirit to do the work he calls us to do.

Of course, this all starts with taking our relationship with God seriously because our ministries should be based on what we perceive God is calling us to do on his behalf. Once again, there is no room for human pride here. We have to be humble enough to be obedient to God’s call to us and live as his called-out (holy) people, something that is no easy matter given how profoundly broken we all are. But here too we will be encouragers to each other when we imitate Jesus’ humility, precisely because we do know how hard it is to persist in engaging in a devotional life and living in obedience to our Lord’s commands.

This, then, is what today’s lessons can teach us. If we are going to be changed by God to make a difference for God, we have to be a humble people, not proud ones. Humility is an essential ingredient if we are going to succeed in our collective ministries because we are all so profoundly broken and need each other’s tangible help, support, and encouragement. Pride, on the other hand, will inevitably lead to dissension and strife, just as it did for God’s people in the wilderness. It is easy for us to fall into this trap because we are proud creatures by nature and so we have to work hard to grow in our relationship with God and each other so that by God’s help and each other’s support we can overcome our pride. We do this through regular Bible study, prayer, worship, humble service, and partaking in holy communion. We also must continue to monitor our behavior and thoughts to see if we are encouragers or criticizers. And when we see that we’ve gotten it wrong, we must be honest and humble enough to acknowledge our wrongdoings and ask God to forgive us and help us change what needs to be changed.

In closing, I want to stress that I have not observed any of these proud behaviors I have just talked about. In fact, just the opposite. From what I have observed, God has blessed us richly with his Spirit and that is why I have great hope for us as a congregation to fulfill our mission statement. Instead, I have raised these issues because given the human condition, they  always present a real danger and we need to be constantly on our guard. In other words, we need to take care of the business of working out our salvation in fear and trembling and always be willing to encourage each other in that difficult work because we are each members of Christ’s body, the Church, and he expects us to love each other in that way.

When, by the Spirit’s help, we learn the grace of humility, the sky is the limit for what we can do together as God’s people. We learn to trust God and see that he really is big enough to care for us and our needs. We see that he has blessed us with other faithful Christians in our lives and over time we learn to trust and support each other, all of which helps produce unity in Christ. And when that happens, we learn to take the pressure off ourselves to produce for God and be content to deal with whatever God chooses to bring our way (or withhold from us).

If we really do want to make a difference for God, we have to pay attention to the rules of engagement, rules that require a humble spirit on our part that will lead us inevitably to a life a loving service based on our faith in Christ and grounded in our hope in his death and resurrection. None of this is easy, but we are not alone. We have God’s very Spirit living in each of us and collectively to shape us into the humans God created and intends for us to be so that we can make a difference for God. And just as importantly, we have each other. All this reminds us that we really do have Good News, here in the wilderness and for all eternity.

In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

More on the Medal of Honor Winner Dakata Meyer’s Story

From the Columbus Dispatch.

“The story of what Dakota did next will be told for generations. He told Juan they were going in. Juan jumped into a Humvee and took the wheel; Dakota climbed into the turret and manned the gun,” Obama said in the East Room last week. “They were defying orders, but they were doing what they thought was right. So they drove straight into a killing zone.”

Obama went on to describe five successive missions by Meyer and Rodriguez-Chavez that night, as they helped save the lives of 13 American and 23 Afghan troops. Five American troops and nine Afghan soldiers died in the ambush, as did many of the 50 insurgents.

However, Obama left part of the story unexplained: What happened to Rodriguez-Chavez, and why hasn’t he been awarded a Medal of Honor?

Read it all. Amazing stuff.

Sin, Sex, and the Human Body

12 “I have the right to do anything,” you say—but not everything is beneficial. “I have the right to do anything”—but I will not be mastered by anything. 13 You say, “Food for the stomach and the stomach for food, and God will destroy them both.” The body, however, is not meant for sexual immorality but for the Lord, and the Lord for the body. 14 By his power God raised the Lord from the dead, and he will raise us also. 15 Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ himself? Shall I then take the members of Christ and unite them with a prostitute? Never! 16 Do you not know that he who unites himself with a prostitute is one with her in body? For it is said, “The two will become one flesh.” 17 But whoever is united with the Lord is one with him in spirit. 18 Flee from sexual immorality. All other sins a person commits are outside the body, but whoever sins sexually, sins against their own body. 19 Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; 20 you were bought at a price. Therefore honor God with your bodies.

–1 Corinthians 6.12-20 (NIV)

Yesterday we saw that Paul had the courage to speak the truth in love to the Christians at Corinth who were abusing their freedom in Christ. We saw that sexual sin played a prominent role in the list of behaviors that Paul considered to be dehumanizing and contrary to God’s good will for us.

Today Paul explains why sex played such a prominent role in his previous admonitions. In Corinth of Paul’s day there was a major temple to the goddess Aphrodite in which over 1000 prostitutes were employed. Hence, having sex with a temple prostitute was a real possibility for all Corinthians and the Christians living there were no exception. Why is this historical context relevant? While we don’t have many temple prostitutes running around in our culture today (at least not yet), it doesn’t take us long to see that sex is regularly elevated and promoted. Sex appeals to us and sex sells. We can’t escape it in our present day culture and it presents a formidable challenge to Christians today, just as it did in Paul’s day. So we need to pay attention to what Paul is telling us here, much of which is quite countercultural.

First, to those who say that a person’s body is his or her own, Paul responds by saying poppycock. Our bodies our not our own. They are God’s and they house his Spirit. God is not disinterested in our bodies because he intends to redeem our fallen bodies one day. How do we know that? Because God raised Jesus’ mortal body from the dead and transformed it into a resurrection body, just like the ones Christians will get when God raises us from the dead. If you miss the theology of resurrection in this passage you are not reading it very carefully. It is the resurrection, combined with the fact that God’s Spirit lives in our bodies, that gives the human body dignity and worth. Consequently, we have no right to practice those things that will degrade our body. To compare food to sex is a category mistake because sex does make a difference in God’s eyes. Food does not.

We also notice the theology of sex and marriage. Our sexual drive is God-given and therefore good. But we cannot abuse or misuse God’s good gift to us. The only context in which God will bless sex is marriage as Paul reminds us when he cites Genesis 2.24 above. This clearly shoots a hole in the agenda of those who advocate a lifestyle of casual sex or polyamory or homosexual relationships, among others. This stance is terribly unpopular today but that does not change the fact of the matter for those who are trying to be faithful to God’s general will for all humans. It is also important for us to remember here that Paul desires for us to live life in accordance with God’s will for us so that we can be truly human and truly happy. Any other route to happiness is doomed to fail as should be evident to anyone having eyes to see and ears to hear.

Likewise, for those who advocate a woman’s right to abortion, Paul has some unwelcome news. You have no right to an abortion because your body is not yours. Neither is the fetus in your body yours. Both are God’s. Yes, you and your partner used God’s ordained method to create that fetus but that is not about rights. It is about responsible usage of the freedom God gives you to use (or abuse) his good gifts to you. Again, this particular stance is extremely unpopular in some quarters of our society today. But as Paul is reminding the Corinthians (and us), living a faithful and obedient life is not about winning popularity contests. We have to look no further than either Jesus’ life or Paul’s to see the truth in that. We live to and for God and that is the only way we will find fulfillment and learn how to be truly human.

Again, this is not about following a bunch of arbitrary rules. It is about learning to live as the creatures God created us to be. When we have real faith which will always manifest itself in action, we will discover this truth by God’s grace and our own experience. Every one of us seeks meaning and purpose for living. What Scripture tells us is that we have lost both because we have chosen to thumb our nose at God and sought to find happiness on our own. In today’s society, many try to find happiness in and through sexual promiscuity. They believe that they can find happiness, in part, by how many notches they can notch on their bedpost. Sadly I was like that at one point in my life and I burn with shame over it today. I discovered, as countless others have, that seeking happiness through multiple sexual partners and other such behaviors is futile.

Fortunately for us, God has done something about our futile searching. He has taken on our humanity and died for us. In doing so, God has also left us a model for living that is the only way to find true happiness. It is about losing ourselves for God’s sake and the sake of others–and all that that entails. It is about paying attention to God’s good will for how to live and conduct our lives, sex included.

Moreover, given the breathtaking resurrection theology we see in Paul’s writing today, we are reminded that the human body and things of this world have meaning and worth. We need to respect that, both in our own bodies and the bodies of others. Paul’s resurrection theology also means we have work to do here in this world. We are to be open to the Spirit’s Presence and guidance in our life so that he can use us to be Christ’s agents of his healing and redemption. It isn’t up to us to save the world. Only God can save the world. It is up to us to live faithful and obedient lives so that we can mirror God’s glory to others who desperately need to see it and to bring God’s healing love to bear on his broken and hurting creatures. And yes, as Paul reminds us here, how we use the gift of sex and treat our bodies (and the bodies of others), is an important part of living faithful lives to God.

If you really want to be countercultural and make a difference in this world, muse on what Paul is telling us here. What you will find–if you take Paul seriously–is that being countercultural isn’t all that glorious or all that it’s cracked up to be. But take heart and hope. Even if being countercultural won’t win you any popularity contests, you know that you are living your life in a way that is pleasing to God and you will certainly reap the benefit of that, in part by discovering the joy that comes from living as a fully human being. Our Lord Jesus would surely approve.

Book Review: The Antidote to Alcohol and Drug Addiction: Why Worship May Help Kick the Habit.

From Christianity Today online. Looks like this book is worth your while if this is an issue in your life or the life of loved ones.

Although Dunnington’s prose is lucid and his insights helpful, many readers will find the philosophical portions heavy going. But those who persevere will appreciate his critique of our culture, and his proposal that Christian worship offers the only adequate response to the seductions of drink and drug.

Dunnington uses Aristotle and Aquinas to provide an account of addiction as habit—something between “instinct” and “disposition”—rather than a product of biological predestination or bad choices. If we understand addiction as habit, then the life of recovery becomes “a life of re-habituation rather than merely a life of repetition of acts of abstinence.” In other words, recovery entails replacing bad habits with good ones—habits conducive to virtuous, meaningful lives. For Dunnington, the bad habit of addiction results from our culture’s loss of transcendent meaning and purpose. Only the church, by preaching re-habituation towards the worship of God, can illuminate the path of true healing and renewal.

Read the whole review.

Saying Hard Things

I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people— 10 not at all meaning the people of this world who are immoral, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters. In that case you would have to leave this world. 11 But now I am writing to you that you must not associate with anyone who claims to be a brother or sister but is sexually immoral or greedy, an idolater or slanderer, a drunkard or swindler. Do not even eat with such people. 12 What business is it of mine to judge those outside the church? Are you not to judge those inside? 13 God will judge those outside. “Expel the wicked person from among you.”

1 If any of you has a dispute with another, do you dare to take it before the ungodly for judgment instead of before the Lord’s people? 2 Or do you not know that the Lord’s people will judge the world? And if you are to judge the world, are you not competent to judge trivial cases? 3 Do you not know that we will judge angels? How much more the things of this life! 4Therefore, if you have disputes about such matters, do you ask for a ruling from those whose way of life is scorned in the church? 5 I say this to shame you. Is it possible that there is nobody among you wise enough to judge a dispute between believers? 6 But instead, one brother takes another to court—and this in front of unbelievers!  7 The very fact that you have lawsuits among you means you have been completely defeated already. Why not rather be wronged? Why not rather be cheated? 8 Instead, you yourselves cheat and do wrong, and you do this to your brothers and sisters. 9 Or do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor men who have sex with men 10nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. 11 And that is what some of you were. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.

–1 Corinthians 5.9-6.11 (NIV)

In today’s culture where anything goes and where love has been distorted to mean allowing the beloved to do whatever he/she pleases, reading passages like the one above comes as a shock to us. “How judgmental of you Paul!” we are tempted to exclaim in self-righteous indignation. “Get with the program. Get enlightened and stop acting like an old fuddy-duddy. You claim to know Jesus and to follow him. Don’t you know that Jesus said for us not to judge others?”

You don’t have to go very far to hear comments like that, both inside the Christian community and outside of it. We just don’t want to be accused of being “judgmental” because that has become the new unforgivable sin in our culture. But this distorts the original meaning and context of Jesus’ teaching about being judgmental and Paul is being quite consistent with Jesus in his application of judging here.

The precipitating issue that Paul is addressing is a misunderstanding the Corinthian Christians had about Christian freedom. They had a member in their church who was having sex with his step-mother and no one had told this man to stop. Apparently most of those Christians interpreted Christian freedom as freedom to do whatever feels good. After all, aren’t we all forgiven by the blood of the lamb? So what’s the big deal?

But this badly distorts the Gospel and I do not have time or space to fully engage in that argument. Suffice it to say here that Paul was reminding the church at Corinth about Whose they were. You see, Christ didn’t die for us so that we could keep on being the broken people we are. He died to set us free from our sins and brokenness. But we have to do our part in response. We have to start practicing the Christian virtues so that we can learn to be fully human and prepare ourselves to live as such in the promised New Creation that Jesus’ resurrection previews for us.

Practicing the Christian virtues at first will feel odd because we are such broken people. For example, when I was a young man, I wanted to learn to play guitar and I had to practice for hours and hours (and hours) to learn how to produce the right chords. It wasn’t easy and the fingering was terribly awkward for me. Likewise with practicing the Christian virtues. Paul is reminding the Corinthians and us that God wants everyone to be part of his promised New Creation but we have to learn how to behave so that we can live there comfortably. So we have to avoid those behaviors that dehumanize us and that will serve to keep us from the Kingdom, not because we aren’t “following the rules” but because these behaviors (of which Paul names a few in today’s passage) tend to reinforce our brokenness and don’t get us ready to live in God’s presence forever.

This line of thinking is not popular. In fact, it leads to charges of hate-mongering and bigotry. But nothing is farther from the truth. Paul is not being judgmental. To the contrary, he reminds the Corinthians that they are not to judge non-believers. God will do that, thank you. What they are to do is to work on practicing the Christians virtues of faith, hope, and love, virtues that will help equip them to live in God’s New Creation. These are behaviors that help them become more human and these are what the any Christian ought to be pursuing seriously because they lead to life. Paul also reminds the Corinthians that part of loving each other is to hold each other accountable for practicing the Christian virtues. Why? Because we are all so broken that it is difficult to practice these virtues, at least initially.

That is why Paul scolds the Corinthians so severely about engaging in civil lawsuits against one another. They should know better. Because they are Christ’s and because they should imitate him, they should be willing and able to bear wrongs that fellow believers might happen to bring to bear on them. There should be a willingness to forgive and not to be haughty or proud. It’s about practicing humility and extending grace. Doing so will help the Corinthians be the humans God created and intends for them to be so that they will be able to fulfill their God-given duty of being stewards of God’s new creation. When we understand this, Paul’s remarkable statement about humans judging angels and the world start to make sense.

But none of this is automatic. We have to work on it and be changed by the grace of God and by his Spirit living among us. If we don’t, we really don’t have faith in Christ and his cross because we are unwilling to be changed into his image. Our behavior always reflects our faith (or lack thereof). What Paul is reminding us here is the sad fact that not everyone will enter God’s promised New Creation and we can tell that because of their behaviors. It is a hard thing to hear but if you want to know what real love looks like, here it is. Paul doesn’t want anyone to die and be excluded from God’s Kingdom. He wants everyone to have faith in Christ, to be changed by that faith and live. So he has outlined for us the promises and benefits of living a Christian life. And he has also warned us that faith in Christ is more than just lip service. It certainly isn’t living a life of libertinism where we can do as we please because our desires have gotten badly distorted and broken.

Paul certainly will not win any popularity contests over what he has written here. He didn’t in his day and he still doesn’t in ours. Many read this and are scornful. In fact, the Daily Office for the Episcopal Church omits verses 9-11 from it’s assigned readings! They apparently are just too “unenlightened” and “unloving” and so should be avoided. That is tantamount to a person not going to the doctor when symptoms of cancer appear. The thinking goes something like this: If I ignore or avoid it, it might go away. But true love always desires the best for the beloved and eternal destruction is not something we should desire for anyone, especially those we claim to love most.

Being Christian is hard work and it sometimes requires hard things from us. When that happens, we must be careful to ask the Spirit living in us to guide us and give us the proper attitude and humility to speak the truth in love to others. We do so because we realize that we are just like them in our brokenness, and just as much in need of Christ’s healing love as the other. We also must remember that it is not our job to “fix” other people. We don’t have that in our power because we are as badly broken as they are. What we do have in our power is to introduce others to the One who can fix them and to be ready to offer good reasons why others might want to develop a relationship with Jesus.

It’s not about following a bunch of arbitrary rules. Nobody is very good at doing that. Rather it’s about learning to develop the behaviors (the Christian virtues of faith, hope, and love and the attendant fruit of the Spirit) that will allow the Spirit to shape us into real human beings. We do this because we believe in (and want to obey and become like) the One who loved us and gave himself for us so that we might live. Without that costly act, what we do is really irrelevant.

CT: The Science of Shacking Up

Think living together before marriage will increase your chances of having a happy marriage? Think again.

From Christianity Today online.

Scientists find that cohabitation cuts down on commitment. The message of living together is, “I’d really only like to take part of you. And maybe some time later I’d like to take all of you.” No wonder so many cohabitating couples break up or fall into unhealthy patterns. The relationship defines itself by a holding back of commitment.

People, especially men, who cohabit are less committed to that relationship but also less committed to future relationships. Again, that’s not a preacher’s line or a moralizer’s line. That’s a scientific line. Cohabitating men who go on to marry are significantly less committed to the marriage itself than men who don’t cohabit.

Read and ponder it all, especially if you are living with someone right now. Talk about the issues raised here with your mate and ask God to guide you both as you do.

An Antidote to Grumbling

In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

We can’t read today’s OT and Gospel lessons and not chuckle a bit. Why? Because in each of the stories, we see humans grumbling about their current situations and when we think about it for a moment, we realize that we are just like them! For various reasons, we grumble about all sorts of things and some of us seem to really enjoy our grumbling because we do it more often than not. I am not talking here about the kind of grumbling that should rightly occur when we see injustice or poverty or things that degrade or dehumanize us. I am talking about the kind of grumbling that occurs when things do not go the way we think they should. And so today, I want to look at what these lessons tell us about grumbling and what we might learn from that.

In our OT lesson, we see the Israelites complaining about their present condition in the wilderness. God has delivered them from their slavery in Egypt in a most dramatic fashion. So far so good. Folks usually don’t grumble when they see the Almighty doing things like parting the Red Sea. Such acts of power are stark reminders of how ridiculous our concerns are about whether God is big enough to take care of us and our needs.

But now things have apparently changed for God’s people. Yes, God still accompanies them. The pillars of cloud and fire are there to lead God’s people and protect them. The problem is, God’s people are still wandering in the wilderness and they are getting tired of it. They start longing for the good old days when they were slaves to the Egyptians. Why? Because they had plenty of food to eat there. Their basic needs were being met, with the exception of their freedom. But we all know you can’t live by freedom alone. You need food in your belly and so the Israelites grumbled against Moses and Aaron. After all, that’s safer than grumbling against God.

Then there are the workers in Jesus’ parable in today’s Gospel lesson. They too are grumbling but apparently for a different reason. In this case they are grumbling over what they see as a fairness issue. In this parable, Jesus clearly has in mind the relationship between God and his people as the vineyard owner and workers were well-known metaphors for both parties respectively.

We notice several peculiar things in this parable. First, we notice that the landowner seems to genuinely care about his people. He doesn’t send out a hired hand to round up those who need work. The landowner goes out to see for himself what is the condition on the streets. We also notice the generosity of the landowner because he pays the day laborers a very generous wage, certainly more than the usual daily rate because there typically was an oversupply of day laborers in Jesus’ day, which would have driven wages down. Despite this, the landowner pays these workers a premium wage. But here is where it gets interesting because at the end of the day he pays everyone he hires the same wage and that really irritates those whom the landowner hired first. “Not fair! Not fair!” they exclaim.

Do you see what is going on here? We tend to grumble when things don’t seem to be going the way we expect or think we deserve. It is usually indicative of our human pride in which we elevate ourselves to become the center of the universe and when our expectations are violated, we get irritated or downright indignant and start to grumble. We see this illustrated in the Israelites in our OT lesson. They didn’t believe God really cared about them or would take care of their most basic needs. The laborers in the Gospel lesson didn’t think they had been treated fairly, at least those who had been hired first. And so they all grumbled against God because they essentially believed they knew better than God about their own needs. Do you see how ludicrous that is? Can the finite and fallible creature really know better than the infinite and all-knowing Creator?

Before we answer that, however, we had best take a look in the mirror because even Christians behave like this on occasion. You see, we live in the “already-not yet.” We have seen the cross and believe that God really has acted decisively on our behalf to give us eternal life. We have also seen the empty tomb and believe in the hope and promise of New Creation that Jesus’ resurrection previews and promises. That is the “not yet” part and it gives us real hope as we await its full arrival because we know our future is secured.

But in the meantime, we still have to live in the wilderness, which is a common biblical metaphor for living in God’s good but broken world. We are still afflicted by all kinds of nasty things that make us grumble, from physical illness to relational problems to economic worries. The list is endless and like the Israelites in the desert, we too cry out to God and grumble to him because we too often think we know better than God and wonder if he really is big enough to meet our needs. We all get this dynamic because we all have been there and done that.

And what is God’s response to our grumbling? If God were like the rest of us, we would typically expect God to give it right back to us. After all, isn’t that how most of us react to the persistent grumbling of others (which is never as justifiable as our own)? We tend to get irritated and give it right back to the grumbler, or at least show little sympathy or care about it.

But it is to the glory of God that he does not do that to us. Instead, God is infinitely patient and generous with us as we see in both stories. God did not chastise his grumbling and ungrateful people. He gave them manna, the bread of heaven to sustain them! Why? Because God rescued his people out of Egypt to bring God glory and to use them to help God bring his healing love to the rest of sinful humanity, not to destroy them. Israel would try God’s patience repeatedly and their rebellion did bring them punishment and exile. But through it all, God remained (and remains) faithful to his people.

And as the message of Jesus’ parable makes clear, God is outrageously generous to his people. He is not generous to us because we deserve it. In fact, the only thing any of us deserve from God is condemnation and death. But God did not create us for that and so he dealt with the problem of our sin and the alienation it causes by becoming human and for us so that we would not be separated from him forever. This is the breathtaking generosity and grace of God. As Jesus reminds us in today’s parable, God gives to us, not because some of us are more deserving of his gifts and love than others, but because he is generous beyond our wildest hopes and imaginings. We see the very heart of God illustrated in Jesus’ parable.

So what can we learn from all this? First, it is OK to grumble because we still live in a broken world and there are real problems and suffering that inevitably afflict us. But we must be mindful of whywe grumble. We have no reason or right to think we know better than God or that he is not capable of taking care of us. When it hits the fan in our lives, we must have a deep and abiding faith in God’s love and goodness toward us. But this doesn’t happen automatically. We have to do the things in our control that will allow the Spirit living in us to help us grow in our faith. This means we read and study God’s word regularly to be reminded that God is sovereign and faithful. We have the freedom to push God away but he will not abandon or reject us in any circumstance. For example, if we were to continue to read the story from Exodus today, we would learn that the Israelites discovered that despite their grumbling, God gave them exactly what they needed, no more, no less. God provides for his people. Scripture makes that consistently clear and we need to make that story our own so that we can recall it when we are tempted to grumble. When, by God’s grace, we learn this, we are on our way in using our faith to overcome a major source of our grumbling—human pride.

We see this dynamic illustrated in Paul’s letter to the Philippians when he talks about preferring death so that he could be with his Lord. This isn’t some kind of morbid death wish that results from psychopathology. No, it was a statement of great faith. Paul wrote Philippians from prison and death was a real possibility. But he didn’t care. He had Jesus! And as the context of today’s passage makes clear, Paul wrote this letter to encourage the Philippians in their trials and sufferings. Paul was essentially telling the Philippians not to let nasty things like death or his unjust imprisonment or other trials for Jesus’ sake get them down. They were in God’s care and their future was assured.

Paul seems to be saying to us, “You still live in the wilderness. But live as people of hope because Jesus is with you and will never abandon you. Look to his cross and resurrection regularly to remind yourselves that God is powerful enough to overcome even death. Nothing is too big for God.” This isn’t easy to do, especially in our darkest hours. That is why we also need to love and care for each other so that we can have tangible and consistent reminders of God’s love for us and power to deliver us. As with any habit, the more we put on Christ, the more we can depend on his power to help us live faithfully in the wilderness.

Last, we need to take a cue from the Israelites feeding on the manna in the desert. God has delivered us from sin and death through the cross of Jesus. As we await our promised destiny of being with Jesus in the New Creation, we are to feed on Jesus’ body and blood each week that we remain here in the wilderness so that he can sustain and strengthen us in yet another real and tangible way. The day you stop believing that you no longer need the sacraments of holy communion is the day you are in real trouble because your pride is deluding you into thinking you do not need to rely on God’s gracious generosity to live or are somehow deserving of it, just as some of the workers in Jesus’ parable were.

Grumbling is a fact of life. But let us all resolve to engage in godly grumbling where we groan to God about our weakness and confess to him our utter dependence on him to sustain us as we walk in the wilderness. Let us do the things on a regular basis that will increase our faith, things like learning God’s rescue story in Scripture, feeding on him each week by coming to his Table, and developing a real fellowship with each other. When we do these things, we will discover that we are maturing as Christians and when that happens we will also discover that our grumbling subsides proportionately. Yes, we walk in the desert, but we are not alone. We have the Spirit living in and among us, and we have a glorious future awaiting us, all because we have a God who is sovereign and who is outrageously generous with us. All this reminds us that we really do have Good News, here in the wilderness and for all eternity.

In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

Having a Whole Picture of God

1 For three years there was no war between Aram and Israel. 2 But in the third year Jehoshaphat king of Judah went down to see the king of Israel. 3 The king of Israel had said to his officials, “Don’t you know that Ramoth Gilead belongs to us and yet we are doing nothing to retake it from the king of Aram?” 4 So he asked Jehoshaphat, “Will you go with me to fight against Ramoth Gilead?” Jehoshaphat replied to the king of Israel, “I am as you are, my people as your people, my horses as your horses.” 5 But Jehoshaphat also said to the king of Israel, “First seek the counsel of the LORD.” 6 So the king of Israel brought together the prophets—about four hundred men—and asked them, “Shall I go to war against Ramoth Gilead, or shall I refrain?” “Go,” they answered, “for the Lord will give it into the king’s hand.” 7 But Jehoshaphat asked, “Is there no longer a prophet of the LORD here whom we can inquire of?” 8 The king of Israel answered Jehoshaphat, “There is still one prophet through whom we can inquire of the LORD, but I hate him because he never prophesies anything good about me, but always bad. He is Micaiah son of Imlah.” “The king should not say such a thing,” Jehoshaphat replied. 9 So the king of Israel called one of his officials and said, “Bring Micaiah son of Imlah at once.” 10 Dressed in their royal robes, the king of Israel and Jehoshaphat king of Judah were sitting on their thrones at the threshing floor by the entrance of the gate of Samaria, with all the prophets prophesying before them.11 Now Zedekiah son of Kenaanah had made iron horns and he declared, “This is what the LORD says: ‘With these you will gore the Arameans until they are destroyed.’” 12 All the other prophets were prophesying the same thing. “Attack Ramoth Gilead and be victorious,” they said, “for the LORD will give it into the king’s hand.” 13 The messenger who had gone to summon Micaiah said to him, “Look, the other prophets without exception are predicting success for the king. Let your word agree with theirs, and speak favorably.” 14 But Micaiah said, “As surely as the LORD lives, I can tell him only what the LORD tells me.” 15 When he arrived, the king asked him, “Micaiah, shall we go to war against Ramoth Gilead, or not?” “Attack and be victorious,” he answered, “for the LORD will give it into the king’s hand.” 16 The king said to him, “How many times must I make you swear to tell me nothing but the truth in the name of the LORD?” 17 Then Micaiah answered, “I saw all Israel scattered on the hills like sheep without a shepherd, and the LORD said, ‘These people have no master. Let each one go home in peace.’” 18 The king of Israel said to Jehoshaphat, “Didn’t I tell you that he never prophesies anything good about me, but only bad?” 19 Micaiah continued, “Therefore hear the word of the LORD: I saw the LORD sitting on his throne with all the multitudes of heaven standing around him on his right and on his left. 20 And the LORD said, ‘Who will entice Ahab into attacking Ramoth Gilead and going to his death there?’ “One suggested this, and another that. 21 Finally, a spirit came forward, stood before the LORD and said, ‘I will entice him.’ 22 “‘By what means?’ the LORD asked. “‘I will go out and be a deceiving spirit in the mouths of all his prophets,’ he said. “‘You will succeed in enticing him,’ said the LORD. ‘Go and do it.’ 23 “So now the LORD has put a deceiving spirit in the mouths of all these prophets of yours. The LORD has decreed disaster for you.” 24 Then Zedekiah son of Kenaanah went up and slapped Micaiah in the face. “Which way did the spirit from the LORD go when he went from me to speak to you?” he asked. 25 Micaiah replied, “You will find out on the day you go to hide in an inner room.” 26 The king of Israel then ordered, “Take Micaiah and send him back to Amon the ruler of the city and to Joash the king’s son 27 and say, ‘This is what the king says: Put this fellow in prison and give him nothing but bread and water until I return safely.’” 28 Micaiah declared, “If you ever return safely, the LORD has not spoken through me.” Then he added, “Mark my words, all you people!”

–1 Kings 22.1-28 (NIV)

In many Christian circles you will be hard pressed to hear a word about God’s righteous and holy judgment on sinful humanity. That is unfortunate for two reasons. First, when we do not consider God’s judgment our understanding of God is necessarily incomplete. God is not all love (but neither is God all judgment). Second, when we do not understand that we are all under God’s judgment, we will never be open to the wondrous love and grace of God demonstrated on the cross. Instead, when we do not have appropriate godly fear, we will be more tempted to yawn over the cross rather than to fall on our knees in profound and humble thanksgiving for the gift of life and grace offered to us in and through Jesus.

But as today’s story makes clear, God is a God who does indeed judge and who is relentlessly opposed to evil in any form. We see this almost laughably illustrated in the interaction between Jehoshaphat and Ahab, the kings of Judah and Israel respectively. We have already examined Ahab’s character (see here and here) and true to form he is cooking up more mischief again. He wants to turn on his former allies with whom he joined to help repel the Assyrian threat, at least temporarily, and take back from them territory that belongs to Israel. Ahab asks his counterpart, Jehoshaphat, to help him but the latter wants to get God’s approval before agreeing. So Ahab summons his minions who pose as prophets to get a word from the Lord.

And this is where it gets interesting because true prophets are never anyone’s minion. They speak the word of God to God’s people no matter how hard it is for us to hear. That is why Jehoshaphat is suspicious of these “prophetic” sayings and asks Ahab if there are any real prophets still left in Israel (I hope you are chuckling at this because it is so very human on the part of Ahab and his minions–in modern day lingo, this is phenomenon is known as groupthink). Ahab acknowledges that there is a prophet left, Micaiah. But Ahab also tells Jehoshaphat that he hates Micaiah because the latter never has anything good to say about Ahab! Well no duh. It should hardly surprise us that God is not going to have much good to say about the evil a leader of his people is committing, and of course this is where we can see the judgment of God.

But it gets worse for Ahab because the prophet tells him he is going to die and that will be evidence that Micaiah has spoken God’s truth. This is where we start to squirm because as we reflect on our own lives we realize that we are Ahab. Oh, we may not be as egregious in our sins as Ahab was, but any sin separates us from God’s holiness and when we are separated from God’s holiness, death is inevitable. We don’t like to hear that or be reminded of that awful fact but it is true nevertheless. Our wishing the human condition were otherwise will not change it one iota.

Have I succeeded in depressing you thoroughly yet? I hope so because if I have you are now ready to hear what God has done on your behalf. He has come to live among his human creatures as a human himself. He has allowed himself to be hung on a cross and die a terrible death so that we do not have to die and face his God-awful (and perfectly just) punishment. In so doing, God has condemned our sin in the flesh and borne the awful punishment of his judgment on our sins himself so that we do not have to bear the unbearable (cf. Romans 8.1-6).

Some of us don’t like to hear this Good News either because it is an affront to our human pride and our belief that we are able to pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps. But nothing is farther from the truth (cf. 1 Corinthians 1-2). That is the consistent biblical witness and we see it illustrated time and again in stories like today’s and in the stories of our own lives.

As you read and ponder today’s lesson, allow the Spirit to engender in you a real sense godly fear. Not that you should be terrified of God but rather that you realize your sin is a terrible affront to God’s holy Presence and that it will always keep you separated from him, which must end in your death.

But God does not want that for you.

He created you to love and enjoy him forever starting right here and now, and you will best do that by enjoying the fact that he is God and you are not. When, by the Spirit’s help, you start to develop that healthy outlook, you are ready to accept God’s gift of life to you in Christ and you will start to learn what it means to be truly human. When you do, there is no reason for you to fear God’s judgment anymore. Rather you will find yourself in awe, joy, and profound thanksgiving for the great gift of life and redemption you have received by faith in Christ. And yes, you will then start acting like you really believe and mean it.

(Amazing) Grace Even for the Worst of Us

17 Then the word of the LORD came to Elijah the Tishbite: 18 “Go down to meet Ahab king of Israel, who rules in Samaria. He is now in Naboth’s vineyard, where he has gone to take possession of it. 19 Say to him, ‘This is what the LORD says: Have you not murdered a man and seized his property?’ Then say to him, ‘This is what the LORD says: In the place where dogs licked up Naboth’s blood, dogs will lick up your blood—yes, yours!’” 20 Ahab said to Elijah, “So you have found me, my enemy!” “I have found you,” he answered, “because you have sold yourself to do evil in the eyes of the LORD. 21 He says, ‘I am going to bring disaster on you. I will wipe out your descendants and cut off from Ahab every last male in Israel—slave or free. 22 I will make your house like that of Jeroboam son of Nebat and that of Baasha son of Ahijah, because you have aroused my anger and have caused Israel to sin.’ 23 “And also concerning Jezebel the LORD says: ‘Dogs will devour Jezebel by the wall of Jezreel.’ 24 “Dogs will eat those belonging to Ahab who die in the city, and the birds will feed on those who die in the country.” 25 (There was never anyone like Ahab, who sold himself to do evil in the eyes of the LORD, urged on by Jezebel his wife. 26 He behaved in the vilest manner by going after idols, like the Amorites the LORD drove out before Israel.) 27 When Ahab heard these words, he tore his clothes, put on sackcloth and fasted. He lay in sackcloth and went around meekly. 28 Then the word of the LORD came to Elijah the Tishbite: 29 “Have you noticed how Ahab has humbled himself before me? Because he has humbled himself, I will not bring this disaster in his day, but I will bring it on his house in the days of his son.”

–1 Kings 21.17-29 (NIV)

Yesterday we saw that Scripture contains stories of God’s interaction with his people and that the latter do not always behave in ways that are pleasing to God. Today’s lesson concludes yesterday’s sad story. You recall that Ahab had coveted an Israelite’s vineyard and pouted when his offer to buy it was rejected. This didn’t stop his wife Jezebel from taking matters into her own hands and having Naboth, the vineyard’s owner, murdered so that Ahab could possess what he coveted. Not exactly godly behavior on the part of a ruler of God’s people. Rather, it’s more indicative of the ways of the world God had called his people to help him heal and redeem.

As you might guess, this was very displeasing in God’s sight and so he speaks to Ahab through God’s prophet, Elijah (the “Troubler of Israel” as Ahab had called him). The writer makes clear that Ahab was the worst of the worse. As a leader of God’s people, he had led them to idolatry and all kinds of other wickedness that would surely separate them from God and result in their death. This latest episode was simply the icing on the cake and indicative of Ahab’s (and Jezebel’s) hard heart. So in quite graphic and earthy language, Elijah explains to Ahab what will be the consequences of his sins. You can’t read this and not wince–if you care at all about people, yourself included.

Again, we must read this story within the broader context of God’s rescue plan for sinful humanity. God in his wisdom has determined to help bring about his healing and redemption through his chosen people and through his Messiah Jesus, Israel’s true representative man. So it is is no surprise that God condemns Ahab and Jezebel for their waywardness and wickedness. Think of it this way.  As a parent you entrust your family’s good name and heritage to your children. You depend on them to pass your treasures on, by rehearsing your family story by being a good role model for others. But instead of embracing this gift they reject it and act in ways that are contrary to your wishes. If you care at all about your family, you will surely be grieved and displeased. This is essentially what we are seeing here in this interaction between God and his wayward ruler, Ahab.

But then the most wonderful thing happens.

When hearing God’s terrible condemnation pronounced on his family and him, Ahab repents. And what do God do? He extends grace to Ahab. Unbelievable! And totally undeserved! The punishment is not rescinded completely, but it doesn’t fall on Ahab because Ahab has humbled himself before God.

Think about this for a minute. Here comes pardon for a man who has led God’s people astray and who is guilty of murder. God does not tell Elijah to set a bunch of further conditions on Ahab before he receives this partial reprieve. No, because Ahab humbled himself before God by repenting, God spared his life. Let that sink in. There apparently is nothing too great that God is not willing to forgive except our unwillingness to turn away from our pride and waywardness. Consequences remain but pardon is given. Amazing (grace).

This story, then, is a powerful and poignant statement about the heart of God and anyone who reads this and whose heart is not completely hardened cannot help but be encouraged by it and take hope. It doesn’t matter what you have done or who you are. Nothing is beyond God’s forgiveness except your stubborn refusal to accept it by refusing to stop acting like you are God. Whatever it is that separates you from God, give it up to God by confessing it to him and then let him forgive and heal you.

You can find countless stories of God’s mind-blowing grace bestowed on the most wretched of people, people that most of us would run away from as fast as we can. Not God. God created us to have a relationship with him and to enjoy life. We just have to be smart enough to accept his terms for having that kind of relationship, which of course is for our good. When we do, we will find immediate forgiveness and release from all that weighs us down and keeps us separated from God. We learn to grow in faith and in the process, we learn what it means to be truly human. What does that look like? Take a look at the life of Jesus of Nazareth and there you will find your answer. But it all starts with us having the good sense to respond positively to God’s call to us to turn our lives around and make him the center of our world instead of ourselves.