Tag Archives: religion

God’s People, part 101: Zeal x 3

Read Daniel 3

ALSO IN SCRIPTURE

“If you try to hang on to your life, you will lose it. But if you give up your life for my sake, you will save it. And what do you benefit if you gain the whole world but lose your own soul? Is anything worth more than your soul?” (Matthew‬ ‭16:25-26‬ ‭NLT‬‬)

When we think of God’s people, we tend to think one of two things. We might think of the Israelites who were God’s “chosen people”, or we might think of specific characters in the Bible. Either way, we tend to idealize the people we are thinking about. For instance, we may think that God’s people are super faithful, holy, perform miracles and live wholly devout and righteous lives. Unfortunately, this idealism enables us to distance ourselves from being God’s people, because we feel that we fall short of those ideals. As such, I have decided to write a devotion series on specific characters in the Bible in order to show you how much these Biblical people are truly like us, and how much we are truly called to be God’s people.

img_1084Part 101: Zeal x 3. Have you ever heard the story of Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah? If not, these were friends of God’s servant Daniel and were among the aristocracy that had been exiled into Babylon. In Babylon, they had almost been put to death when none of the astrologers, magicians, or wise men of Babylon could tell the king what his dream was.

As a result, King Nebuchadnezzar II ordered that all of the wise men in Babylon (including Daniel and his friends) be put to death. Upon hearing this decree, Daniel met with Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah and begged them to pray for God to reveal to them the King’s dream so that they could avoid being put to death. That very night, Daniel was told in a dream what the king had dreamt of.

The next morning, Daniel told the king his dream and also revealed to the king its meaning. The king was so impressed that he fell down and worshipped Daniel. What’s more, he promoted Daniel to a high position his court and, at Daniel’s request, he also promoted Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah. The three friends became known by their Babylonian names Shadrach, Meshach and Adednego, and Daniel became known as Belteshazzar. With that said, they had not eluded danger for long.

The narrative goes on to tell us that the Babylonian king decided to build a giant golden statue (possibly of himself) and demanded that all of his subjects bow down and worship the statue in order to show loyalty and respect to the king. I can only imagine how scared the Jewish people must have been. It was against God’s holy law to bow down to foreign objects but, with that said, they were now exiled in Babylon with God seemingly nowhere in sight.

I am sure that Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah were among the Jews who were afraid of what would happen. I can imagine each of them racing through their minds and searching their own hearts for what to do next. Should they bow to the king and live to see another day, or defy the king and refuse to bow? The latter would most definitely get them killed.

The three friends, in that moment, became filled with zeal for their God and refused to bow. Zeal can be defined as a great energy or enthusiasm for God and for their faith. Rather than cower to the king, they refused to bow. Even when the king demanded they bow or be killed, they told the king that even if he threw them into the fiery furnace, their God would rescue them.

Well, that claim certainly got tested and the three, along with their zeal, were thrown in to the fiery furnace. They could have died; however, the angel of the Lord (who was visible to the king, and other onlookers, as a fourth person in the flames) protected Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah from the flames and they ended up coming out of the furnace alive.

This event brough great glory to God, and the king of Babylon decreed that no one could utter a word against them or their great God or such people would be torn limb by limb. Because of their devotion and their zeal for God, because of their unwavering faith in the heat of the moment, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah witnessed to the power of the true and living God. They, and Daniel, were witnesses to the reality of Immanuel…God with us.

While not all martyrs live to tell the tale of their martyrdom, like Daniel and his friends did, all believers in God (Father, Son and Holy Spirit) are called to be martyrs (aka witnesses). Don’t misunderstand me, I am not suggesting that we are all called to DIE for our faith, but that we are all called to witness to our faith and to the love of our God regardless of the cost for doing so. When we witness to God’s truth in this wicked world, there is no doubt that persecution is sure to follow.

When God’s people stand up for what is right, the world tells them to keep their opinions to themselves. When God’s people oppose unjust laws and wicked government leaders, the world tells them that they should not mix religious morality with politics and that they should simply preach sterile messages of false hope and “happiness”. When God’s people seek to help the “least of these”, the greatest among us in the world seek to undermine and destroy any and all efforts, as well as those carrying them out. The challenge for us, as it was for Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah, is to swallow our fears and allow our zeal for our Lord and Savior and God to give us the strength to resist.

THOUGHT OF THE DAY

When we choose our lives over what is righteous, we invite death into our souls. When we choose Christ over our lives, our souls become filled with true and eternal life.

PRAYER

Lord, give me the strength, in Jesus Christ, to be a mighty and powerful witness for your glory. Amen.

God’s People, part 69: Jezebel

Read 2 Kings 9:30-37

ALSO IN SCRIPTURE

“But I have this complaint against you. You are permitting that woman—that Jezebel who calls herself a prophet—to lead my servants astray. She teaches them to commit sexual sin and to eat food offered to idols. I gave her time to repent, but she does not want to turn away from her immorality.” (Revelation‬ ‭2:20-21‬ ‭NLT‬‬)

When we think of God’s people, we tend to think one of two things. We might think of the Israelites who were God’s “chosen people”, or we might think of specific characters in the Bible. Either way, we tend to idealize the people we are thinking about. For instance, we may think that God’s people are super faithful, holy, perform miracles and live wholly devout and righteous lives. Unfortunately, this idealism enables us to distance ourselves from being God’s people, because we feel that we fall short of those ideals. As such, I have decided to write a devotion series on specific characters in the Bible in order to show you how much these Biblical people are truly like us, and how much we are truly called to be God’s people.

 Part 69: Jezebel. The name of Jezebel, wife of Ahab and Queen of Israel, has gone down in infamy. She is infamous for leading her husband, Ahab, to worship the Canaanite god Baal. She is depicted in the Bible as an evil, deceitful and murderous queen who used her power to bring destruction upon Israel and God’s people. Her name is so synonymous with being in opposition to God, that John of Patmos used her name to symbolize a person (or people) within the church at Thyatira who were turning the church away from Christ.

Before we can evaluate the Queen herself, we really need to have a bit of background on her. She was the daugther of Ithobaal I (make note of the last portion of that name) who was the king of Tyre, a city in Phonoecia. During his rule, all of Phonoecia, including Sidon, was unified. If you haven’t already thought of this, Phonoecia is the land that came up with one of the first alphabets that allowed for them to improve communication between themselves and those they traded with. In fact, the English and other alphabets owe their thanks to the Phonoecians.

According to the ancient Phonoecian historian Menander of Ephesus (cited by the Jewish historian Josephus), Jezebel’s father was a priest of the ancient Canaanite god Astarte prior to becoming king. This means that Jezebel grew up as the daughter of a priest and was, no doubt, steeped in the religious traditions of her father and people. This would also explain why Jezebel was persistently proselytizing her husband in the ways of her own religious beliefs and traditions. While this certainly made her unpopular among the those faithful to the God of Israel, one can hardly blame her for her devotion to her religious traditions.

So, out of fairness, let’s put the fact that she proselytized her husband aside and look at some of the other things she was known for. Once she became queen, Jezebel wanted all of Israel to worship Baal and wanted the Canaanite religion she observed to become the national religion that all Israelites must observe. She ordered the deaths of anyone who stood in the way of that. Thus, she murdered all of God’s prophets who obviously objected to her and her husband leading the people of Israel astray.

In their place, she appointed her own priests and prophets of Baal. In fact, when Elijah stood against the 450 prophets of Baal, he noted how he was the only one of God’s prophets left. Jezebel was someone who would not take no for an answer and was someone whose power had long gone to her head. The Bible even states that she ordered the death of a local farmer after he refused to sell Ahab his vineyard.

We cannot be sure how much of the rhetoric in the Bible depicts who Jezebel was and how much it depicts how she was perceived to be from the vantage point of faithful Jews; however, one thing is for sure: the Biblical account lines up well with the historical record of her devotion to Canaanite gods and, like all people in power, it is not hard to believe that she would get rid of anyone who stood against her as a political or religious opponent. In fact, politics and religion were not separate in the ancient world but were very much one and the same thing.

In the end, Jezebel’s opposition to God’s prophets and her political ambitions led not only her husband but also herself down a destructive road. While she may have outlived her husband, her fate soon followed his. Following being anointed King by the prophet Elisha, Jehu had Jezebel thrown out of a palace window, where she laid a bloody mess, was trampled on by horses, and was eaten by stray dogs. Eventually, the king had her corpse removed and the mess cleaned up. Pleasant, I know.

This, my brothers and sisters, is where unwavering commitment to political viewpoints and dogmatic worldviews end up. Jezebel’s unwillingness to be reasonable, fair, honest and just was her own downfall. Those who live for politics, die by politics. Those who live for the sword, die by the sword. Those who live for God may surely experience death, but they never truly die, for in God rests eternal life. Let us be challenged to evaluate ourselves. Are we open to the grace of God? Do we allow the Holy Spirit to work godly change in our lives? Do we seek to represent God in all that we do? Or, are we seeking our own way, worshiping our own ambitions, and, ultimately, leading others to do the same? Let us lay down our idols, repent of our sin, and turn back to God who calls us with open arms.

THOUGHT OF THE DAY

“Put away your sword. Those who use the sword will die by the sword.” — Jesus of Nazareth in Matthew‬ ‭26:52‬ ‭NLT‬‬

PRAYER

Lord, allow me to use the story of Jezebel as a means of evaluating my own life. By your amazing grace, restore me to righteousness and use me to bring love, peace, hope, healing, wholeness and justice to all. Amen.

Not an Excuse

Read Luke 13:1-9

ALSO IN SCRIPTURE
“Jesus told him, ‘I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one can come to the Father except through Me.’” (John 14:6 NLT)

mass-crucifixion-appian-way-2I am sure everyone who has been consistently reading these devotions knows that I am a huge fan of The Walking Dead. For those of us who watch the show faithfully, we know that the opening to Season 7 was a doozy. I am not going to give away any major spoilers; however, I am going to discuss this first episode in a way that I think will lend itself to this devotion. The season kicked off where the previous season left off, with Rick Grimes and the leaders from the Alexandria community grouped together in a circle bound up and on their knees.

In the previous season, the Alexandria community decided to help the Hilltop community in fighting against a common threat: The Saviors. These supposed “Saviors” were anything but. They were some pretty bad dudes who were forcing other communities to either work for them or, if the community refused, killing them in brutally awful ways. So the Alexandria community attacked the Saviors outpost and killed everyone there, only to find out that the outpost the attacked was merely one outpost among many. There were far more Saviors than Alexandria could handle, and the plan ultimately backfired. The Alexandria leaders were eventually captured and grouped together in the circle we see them in at the start of Season 7.

What happened following that can only be described as horrific,  brutal and extremely hard to watch. To sum it up and spare you the emotional trauma that TWD fans had to endure, unless you are already among them, a bloodbath ensues. Negan (pronounced Nee-gan), the leader of The Saviors, plays a twisted game of “eeny meeny miny moe”, where he selects the person who is going to die. When he arrives at the person, he brutally bludgeons him to death with a barb-wire wrapped bat that Negan has nicknamed “Lucille”. Trust me when I say this, it wasn’t pretty. It was graphic, numbing, scarring, and certainly painful to watch. But it was not pretty. What’s more, Negan didn’t stop with the first victim, but ended up choosing a second one to kill in the same fashion.

The point of my bringing this up is because we can very easily imagine such violence existing in our world. As much as we try to pretend it doesn’t exist, we know it does. Honestly, it doesn’t take a zombie apocalypse for that kind of stuff to happen. Yet, while such senseless, brutal violence exists in our world, it is also true that most of us (in Western Civilization anyway) have the choice to be sheltered from it. We can choose to not watch the news, to not open our eyes to the suffering of others around the world, and to live as disconnected from such violence as we choose to be. Yes, I realize that some suffer domestic violence and that not everyone has this choice, but most of us do.

With that said and out there, there are many in our world who think that we can excuse ourselves, as Christians, from following in Jesus’ footsteps. We think that Jesus’ teachings were good for his time because he didn’t live in the age of terrorism. We think that Jesus lived in a golden age that allowed for him to be all “tree-huggy” and “hipster” like. First, Jesus was no tree-hugger nor was he a hippie. Those things come from our world not his. Second, if we truly think that Jesus’ world was less dangerous and less violent than ours, it is time for us to head back to World History 101.

God’s honest truth is that while the actions of Negan shock us because we NEVER see anything like that on a regular basis, Jesus and the people in 1st century Palestine would not have been shocked in the slightest. Growing up, Jesus would vividly remember the forest of crosses, upon which thousands of Galilean men and women were crucified on because of their trying to revolt against King Herod. He drew a reference to, and clearly was aware of, Pontius Pilate slaughtering the mob of people he lured to the public square to “talk” to them about their grievances. It is true, Jesus’ world was not like ours. It was much, much worse.

So, the challenge for us today is to show both a bit of honesty and a lot of humility. Comparing the things we face in our world to that of Jesus’ is NOT AN EXCUSE for us not following the Christ. If we believe in Jesus, then it is clear what we ought to be doing. If we don’t believe, or we don’t think that Jesus’ teachings make sense for us today, then at least be honest and admit that you don’t follow Jesus. This is not meant to push anyone way, but to draw the line so that we can honestly evaluate ourselves. As Christians, everything we do, say and believe ought to be measured by THE ONE who is THE WAY in which we follow. I pray that we all have a heart-to-heart with Jesus during this Lenten journey and choose to follow The Way, The Truth and the Life.

THOUGHT OF THE DAY
“We must not reduce the bosom of the universal church to a nest protecting our mediocrity.” – Pope Francis I
PRAYER
Lord, help me face the truth and shed the excuses. I am yours. I follow you. Amen.

The Sermon, part 16: God-Centered Prayer

Read Matthew 6:7-8

ALSO IN SCRIPTURE
“So Paul, standing before the council, addressed them as follows: ‘Men of Athens, I notice that you are very religious in every way, for as I was walking along I saw your many shrines. And one of your altars had this inscription on it: “To an Unknown God.” This God, whom you worship without knowing, is the One I’m telling you about.’” (Acts 17:22-23 NLT)

ladyonthemoonI have yet to reveal this in my devotions, but most who have known me over the years know that I had once practiced Wicca[i] for nearly a decade of my life. I was brought up in a Christian home, raised to be a Christian in a church, and had even experienced the call to become a pastor as a child. With that said, as a teenager I became disenfranchised with Christianity and with institutionalized religion as a whole. More than that, I was disenfranchised with myself and was seeking who I was, as opposed to who everyone else though I should be.

I know, I know, it’s a common teenage thing: the search for identity; but it’s not to be scoffed at, and it led me to Wicca. Honestly, I thank God for that. Yes, you heard me right, Wicca was a gift given to me from God and I am thankful for it. Through Wicca, God gave me the space to grow, to discover myself, to find my God-given identity, and it kept me seeking the divine rather than denying it. It gave me the space to, overtime, reconnect with my calling and to wrestle with my faith. What’s more, there is truth within the teachings of Wicca and I learned a great deal about God through it.

Since, then (in 2004 to be exact) I came back to Christ, not because Wicca was bad or wrong or (add your adjective here), but because Christ had laid a claim on my life long before I ever chose to go out and explore my spiritual identity. While I may have left the Church, I never left God and God never left me; rather, believe it or not, I grew closer to God through Wicca and gained a much better appreciation and affinity for God’s creation.

The relevance of all of this is that, because of my experience in religions outside of Christianity, I have something to offer in terms of understanding what Jesus is talking about when using the term “pagans” (depending on what translation you use). Matthew was written in Greek, and the word that Matthew quotes Jesus saying is, ἐθνικός (pronounced eth-nee-kos’).  This often gets translated to “pagan” or “Gentile”. It is where we get our English word “ethnic” from and, in Jesus’ Jewish context, it refers to anyone who is NOT ethnically Jewish and/or has not converted to Judaism.

In this passage, Jesus uses the common Jewish perception of Gentiles (or pagans) in regard to prayer. In the ancient pagan world, people would go to great lengths to pray the right prayers, say all the right things, and perform all the right rituals in order to appease the gods and make them happy. To fail to do so could result in the prayer not being answered. In other words, the prayer was intended to manipulate the gods to do what the person was praying for.

If taken literally, Jesus’ words could be seen as an oversimplification, if not a mischaracterization of those religions. In the ancient, Greco-Roman world, there were many different types of pagan religion and cult groups. Each of them had different practices and different beliefs. What’s more, to take his words and try to literally apply them to a modern-day, neopagan religion such as Wicca, would be a mischaracterization. Wicca is a religion that seeks to find balance and harmony with nature and doing one’s part to add to that balance. It is not a religion that solely focuses on self, nor does it seek to prayerfully appease angry, fickle gods.

Yet, Jesus’ point in teaching about prayer was not to put down “pagans” as much as it was to distinguish what prayer ought to be in the Judeo-Christian context. It ought not to be focused on self or on manipulating God/nature in order to affect self-driven (not always self-centered) change in the world around us. That is not what prayer, as defined by Jesus, ought to be. Yet, can Christians truly hold non-Christians to account on that? Do Christians model God-driven or self-driven prayer? Is one’s prayer life centered on self, and on what oneself needs, or is one’s prayer life centered on God and what God wills?

That is what Jesus is talking about in today’s passage. It is not a judgment against “pagans” or other religions, as Christians have unfortunately interpreted it; rather, it is a mirror that Jesus is holding up to Christians to measure themselves in. He utilized language that the people of his time would understand, drawing a comparison between the way the Greco-Roman world practiced prayer, and the way Christians ought to practice it.

The questions for us are these: Are we set apart for God, or are we set apart for ourselves? Are we living the talk, or are we talking differently than how we live? In what is to follow from this passage, Jesus is about to show us what God-driven/God-centered prayer is all about. Reflect on your prayer life between this devotion and next in order to prepare for the instruction our Lord is about to give.

THOUGHT OF THE DAY
“Prayer does not change God, but it changes him who prays.” – Søren Kierkegaard.
PRAYER
Lord, I center my prayer on you. What is it you would have of me? Show me the way. Amen.

[i]Due to time and the focus of this devotion, I cannot go into detail about Wicca. If you want to learn more about it, here is a reasonable and accurate web site which you can visit: http://wicca.cnbeyer.com/wiccan-basics/

The Sermon, part 5: Higher Standard

Read Matthew 5:20

ALSO IN SCRIPTURE
“For Christ is the [purpose] of the Law so that there may be righteousness for everyone who believes.” (Romans 10:4 NRSV)

Jesus had just told his disciples that he did not come to abolish the Torah or the Prophets; rather, Jesus had come to be the fulfillment of them. As was mentioned in the previous devotion, this does not mean that Jesus fulfillls the law by any sort of legalistic way. His teachings neither summarize the Law, nor do they offer a “new interpretation” of the it. Jesus is the fulfillment of the Law and the Prophets because they point directly to him, the Messiah, and his coming to usher in God’s reign.

Jesus then takes that one step forward, just in case anyone may have thought that the Torah and the Prophets were now “history”. Such a willy-nilly approach to understanding Christ’s prophetic fulfillment of Scripture is even more unacceptable than that of the hypocrisy of some of the Pharisees. “For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”

An important historical side note needs to be entered here. It can be said with much certainty that there were Pharisees in Jesus’ day; however, they were not as prominent of a group as they were in the time that Matthew was writing his Gospel. It is quite probable that Jesus did face opposition from some Pharisees as he traveled town to town with his message of God’s Kingdom come; yet, there can be no doubt that Matthew’s community was the one truly facing opposition from the Pharisees.

The reason for noting this is because in Jesus’ day, the group that was really in power were the Sadducees who controlled and presided over the Temple. They were the ones that made up the majority of the Sanhedrin, at least at the time of Jesus, which was the ruling religious body of Judea. What’s more, the Sadducees and the Pharisees were opponents of each other. This can be seen in Paul’s craftily pitting the Pharisees against the Sadducees in Acts 23:6-8.

In Matthew’s day, however, the Temple was long destroyed and the Sadducees were not more. It was the Pharisees, at that point in history, who were working to redefine what it meant to be Jewish without a Temple to make sacrifices for the atonement of sins. Their answer was strict observance of the Law, with the understanding that if you strictly observe Torah, that equals an atoning sacrifice greater than the slaughter of animals. Matthew’s community, on the other hand, believed Jesus to be the answer to the question of how to be Jewish apart from the Temple. Jesus’ life, death and resurrection not only provided atonement for the believer, they were the ultimate fulfillment of God’s Law and the Prophets.

I note this because it is important that we don’t become false judges of the Pharisees as a group. I would imagine that most Pharisees were earnest, faithful people who were living out their call to follow God in the way that they understood that. Jesus’ teachings, while certainly calling out the hypocrisy of some of the religious leaders of his day, were pointed straight at the disciples. It was imperative to Jesus that his disciples realize that in order to be of the Kingdom of God, they have to exceed the “righteousness” being taught by the Pharisees. In other words, God has a higher standard.

As we will see in the next several devotions, Jesus lays out what he believes to be the true standard of God in the Law and the Prophets. In the meantime, let us reflect on the following warning that Jesus gives his disciples. What does it mean for us to exceed the Law and the Prophets?  What does it mean for us to live our lives in the same manner that Christ lived his, as a fulfillment of the Law and the Prophets? If Christ is within us, then that fulfillment should be evident. Let us reflect on these questions as we await what Christ has to teach us.

THOUGHT OF THE DAY
“Being a Christian is more than just an instantaneous conversion – it is a daily process whereby you grow to be more and more like Christ.” – Billy Graham

PRAYER
Lord, teach me your way that I may, through you, represent your coming Kingdom. Amen.

Religion and Politics

Read Luke 9:21-27

ALSO IN SCRIPTURE
Today I appoint you to stand up against nations and kingdoms. Some you must uproot and tear down, destroy and overthrow. Others you must build up and plant.” (Jeremiah 1:10 NLT)

religion-politcs

There is nothing like a political campaign season to bring out the ugliness in people. One cannot go online without being barraged by people on all sides of any political divide, smearing everyone who thinks and views things differently than them. In this particular “Election 2016” cycle, things have descended to uncharted lows.

What’s more, the divide is not solely political either. There is a huge divide in terms of religion as well. Of course, religion has always been a divisive topic among Christians and other religious groups. There’s divisiveness within a religion, where people of the same religion are divided over doctrines, dogmas, and other such things. There’s also divisiveness between different religions as each fight to compete in whose religion holds the absolute truth.

In America, and in Western Civilization as a whole, people have become less willing to share their faith because they have come to see faith and religious believes as something that is personal and something that is to be private. What’s more, people have also come to believe that faith should not interfere with politics and vice versa. There is a whole history in Western Civilization that informs us on the dangers of religion and politics mixing. Even families are guarded against discussing the two, as the phrase goes, at the “dinner table” because they can often bring about heated and divisive arguments.

While this is often true and the mixture of politics with religion can be quite toxic and devastating, this has also led America and the Western world to a skewed and incorrect understanding of the role of religion in society. As we saw in the devotion series I wrote on the wrath of God, religion and politics are not mutually exclusive. The prophet is one who is called to speak out against injustice, against sin, against systemic evil and the societal abandonment of God.

In order for the prophet to fulfill her/his role, she or he must speak out against the ills that are plaguing society. Not just moral ills and not just social ills…but all ills. Prophets speak truth to power and, by doing so, push for societal/social/religious change. The prophet’s words are never “politically correct”, nor are they ever politically wanted. As a result, prophets often pay high social, political, and sometimes religious costs for daring to speak God’s word to the people.

What’s important to note here is that, while the prophet is not called to politicize God or Scripture, she or he’s message will inevitably have political effects and ramifications. By remaining silent and refusing to let God speak through us, we silence our prophetic voice and choose to remain complicit in the way of the world. The prophet is one who recognizes God is calling us to speak truth to power, to stand up against injustice and to push for the changing of the hearts of God’s people.

The question for us is, what is holding us back from being such a prophet? What is keeping us from speaking truth to power and standing up for what’s right? What is stopping us from choosing to not hide our faith away like some sort of “best kept secret”? What is stopping us from keeping our religion in the proverbial broom closet? Are we ashamed of our faith? Are we afraid of the consequences and of what others might think? Let us not shy away from our obligation to speak the truth and stand up for what is right. It may have political consequences, but far better that than the spiritual consequences of remaining silent through, complicit in and culpable for, the evil around us.

THOUGHT OF THE DAY
We are not diplomats but prophets, and our message is not a compromise but an ultimatum. – A. W. Tozer

PRAYER
Lord, help me to speak the truth at all costs and steer me from turning a blind eye to the injustice in the world. Amen.

Wrath of God, part 6

Read Ephesians 2:1-11

ALSO IN SCRIPTURE
Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.” (Matthew 9:13 NRSV)

4456579If you have been reading this series of devotions on the wrath of God, we have certainly been dealing with a subject that most people avoid like the pestilences found in Egypt and Revelation. With good intentions perhaps, many clergy steer clear of talking about the wrath of God so as to not “scare people off” and/or because they themselves are uncomfortable with the topic. The very clergy who organized the Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) have often focused on the “happy” and/or “positive” images of God, only to skip over many of the wrathful images.

Of course, there are some clergy and some Christians who ONLY focus on the wrath of God. These Christians often sit on their perches like hawks, looking down on whom they can throw the Bible at and whom they can warn of hellfire and damnation. Unfortunately, these Christians (and not the Scriptures) are largely responsible for scaring people off and for the bad image that God has received throughout the years. Equally as unfortunate, the silence of responsible theologians on the subject of God’s wrath have also served to be a detriment to the image of God because in the silence the unsilent extreme have been given an unfettered platform to define God through their theology.

It is because of the outspokenness of the Christian extreme and the silence of the more responsible Christian majority that anti-theists, and a growing number of people in our world, have come to reject God and some have even deemed religion to be an evil that the world needs to be rid of! For example, prominent anti-theist Richard Dawkins has written, “The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.” He also has written, “Religion is capable of driving people to such dangerous folly that faith seems to me to qualify as a kind of mental illness.”

Of course, while I respect Dr. Dawkins’ opinion, one could say that his simpleton, straw-man, and heavily skewed understanding of religion can and has led to dangerous folly as well (e.g. any communist nation, take your pick). So, in light of all the terrible things happening in this world, some of them indeed happening in the name of God and/or Allah, I have found it necessary to talk about God’s wrath and I feel is it fruitful for all people to wrestle with what “the wrath of God” really is.

For me, it can be summed up in this manner. The God we worship is the God who created all that is out of love and a desire to be in relationship with that creation. As such, it pains God to see creation suffer and it angers God to see creatures do harm to other creatures. God’s anger can be felt burning in the souls of humans as they witness suffering as a result of sin and evil. That anger is heard in the voices of those who protest against the injustices in the world. I would even say, dare I say it, that God’s anger can be heard through Richard Dawkins whose opinion has formed out of a disgust with religiously motivated ignorance and evil.

God’s wrath, on the other hand, is not something that GOD is bringing upon people! I want to make that clear. Yes, the Bible has articulated it that way, for sure! Yes, people tend to understand it that way; however, that understanding is also countered in the same Bible by the reality that the wrath that was experienced was brought about by the wickedness of humans. God does not punish, nor does God need to. Humans, far too often, punish themselves. Their wickedness brings destruction upon themselves and, unfortunately, upon the innocent as well.

Our God, on the other hand, is grace, mercy, compassion, justice, forgiveness, reconciliation and restoration. Our God, through prophets, humanitarians, and good Samaritans alike, is actively working to bring about hope, healing and wholeness in the world. God’s wrath is spoken through the voices of prophets, but the consequences are the result of human wickedness and NOT God.

The good news in all of this is that we serve a God who is EMPATHETIC to our suffering, a God who stands in solidarity with those suffering, rather than an aloof God who simply does not care God who simply doesn not exist. Like Elijah, like Isaiah, like Jeremiah, let us call upon our God in times of distress that we may be given strength to voice God’s anger and wrath, as well as God’s grace, forgiveness and reconciliation, to those who have strayed into wickedness.

THOUGHT OF THE DAY
“The hallmark of intelligence is not whether one believes in God or not, but the quality of the processes that underlie one’s beliefs.” – Alister McGrath

PRAYER
Lord, help me to have the strength to speak against injustice, rather than remain silent. Amen.

What’s Good About That News?

Read Matthew 23; Matthew 25:31-46; Luke 4:16-21

ALSO IN SCRIPTURE
“Jesus said to his disciples, ‘Occasions for stumbling are bound to come, but woe to anyone by whom they come! It would be better for you if a millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea than for you to cause one of these little ones to stumble.'” (Luke 17:1-2, NRSV)

What's Good About This News?It’s Tuesday night, October 30, and my family and I were huddled around our kerosene lamp playing Yahtzee, as we still have no power (I am typing this on my iPhone, which has limited and sketchy connectivity) or heat. As we were getting ready to play Yahtzee, our phone rang. My youngest jumped up to answer it, in hopes it was her grandmother calling to wish her a happy birthday. But when she answered the phone, it was a pre-recorded evangelical message from some Christian group.

“Has God given up on America?” It asked. “Come and worship and tell us about your beliefs…”, to which my wife then took the phone and hung it up.

I couldn’t believe it. It was a message targeting people who had just gotten hit with the storm of the century in order to evangelize them, promote their church, and “bring the good news.” But let me ask this, what kind of good news is that?” To people who are dealing with their lives being washed away by a super-storm, how is worshipping at a church going to help them out?

It’s this kind of theological positioning that Jesus himself stood against when the Pharisees were accusing him of working on the Sabbath. It is this kind of stuff that Jesus railed against in his stated woes against the religious leaders of his day and age. There is nothing good about the kind of news that takes advantage of people’s vulnerabilities and fears in order to manipulate and generate a “conversion” response.

Jesus taught us in Matthew 25 and in Luke 4 that his mission was to bring real good news to people. For instance, food is good news for the hungry, water for the thirsty, clothes for the naked, etc. Jesus didn’t hand the blind a scroll with his name and some scripture written on it; rather, he gave them sight. When the woman who committed adultery came to him, he didn’t hand her the Torah, the local synagogue address, while asking her what she believed and whether God had given up on her and Israel; rather, he offered her hope and forgiveness, even despite the fact that she never technically repented.

We, as Christians, have to be careful not to misrepresent the “Good News” and, therefore, misrepresent Christ. Imagine if all the money spent on that phone-calling campaign were given to agencies that are helping families devastated by the hurricane, just imagine what difference that could’ve made. Perhaps that would’ve spread the “good news” as opposed to spreading the erroneous fear of God “giving up” on everyone. Again, what’s good about that news? Remember, Jesus is calling us to be agents of God’s hope, healing and wholeness…not false prophets of the world’s doom.

THOUGHT OF THE DAY
If there is one thing we learn through scripture, even in the tumultuous events of Revelation, God never gives up on people.

PRAYER
Lord, guide me as I seek to represent you, and make me a witness of the hope, healing and wholeness that comes through you. Allow my love-filled actions to bear your good news for those in need. Amen.