The prophet Micah gave us three “requirements” to please God– to act justly (do justice), love mercy, and to walk humbly with our God (Micah 6:8) I looked at the first of these more closely last time. I want to look at the second requirement today– Love Mercy.
Just like “do justice,” this statement seems simple and self-evident on the surface. We know God is merciful; we know that He delights to show mercy. In fact, throughout Psalm 136, the refrain is repeated, “His Mercy endures forever!” We also know that God is loving and faithful. It is reasonable to assume that God wants us to show mercy to others, and rejoice in His mercy toward us.
But unlike the first “requirement” of “do justice,” this is not primarily an action statement. I believe God is still pleased when we practice mercy, but the “requirement” is that we love mercy. That we embrace mercy; welcome it, and cherish it. And this is not always easy or straightforward.
I am to love mercy when it is shown to me. I am not to cheapen it by trying to pay it back or “earn” it, or disparage or refuse it. I am to love mercy as I show it to others. I am not to give it grudgingly, or keep a ledger. And I am to love mercy when it is shown to others who don’t “deserve” it.
This is difficult. I want to love justice and do mercy; not the other way around. I don’t want to see others experience mercy when I think they’ve done wrong to me. I don’t always want to rejoice with those whose sins have been forgiven. But until I can do all of this, and learn to love mercy, I cannot fully please God. My grudging show of mercy does not earn God’s approval. My arrogance in deciding who “deserves” mercy does not endear me to my Maker and Judge.
Lord, have mercy on me for begrudging mercy to others. Help me to show mercy freely and joyfully. Help me to love mercy as You do–to rejoice in Your faithfulness, forgiveness, and love.
Some places in America are observing Columbus Day today. This has become a controversial subject. For many years, schoolchildren were taught that Christopher Columbus, an Italian explorer working for the Spanish, “discovered” America when he landed on the island of Hispaniola in 1492.
Modern scholars are offended by this for a variety of reasons. First, there were already people in the Americas– Columbus didn’t “discover” a new-found continent devoid of people or culture. Just because the Spanish court, and most of Europe, didn’t recognize the existence of North and South America and the Caribbean, doesn’t mean they were undiscovered. It only means they were undiscovered by the major European powers. Scholars go on to argue that Columbus and the Spanish (and the French and English and Portuguese who followed) did not so much “discover” the “New World;” they invaded and stole it from those who were living here “in peace.”
I disagree with the way scholars have “revised” the history of Western culture. But it causes me to think of how, over the years, we have also revised the message of the Gospel, and our concept of Christianity.
Much like the modern scholars’ version of Columbus “Discovering” America, many people like to talk about “discovering” Christianity. We “encounter” the Gospel. Maybe we join a local congregation of believers, or a Bible study group. It’s exciting– at first. It is new and amazing in its message of hope and love and grace.
But then we hear ugly stories of Christians who are hateful, judgmental, condemning, greedy, hypocritical, and hurtful. “That can’t be true; that can’t be what Christianity is about,” we say. And so we vow that “our” Christianity will be different. We adapt our message to the current trends in our society. We tailor our message to our friends and neighbors, even when the it’s no longer true. We wipe out and “conquer” and reshape those verses that cause offense. We recreate Jesus into a “great teacher,” a pal or a guru, rather than a Sovereign Savior. We end up following our own gospel, rather than the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
Or, we double down on legalism, making our walk with Christ more like a walk with His accusers, the Pharisees. We scream and argue about the “right” way to worship, or dress, or manage money. And we seek to wipe out those who don’t follow our traditions. We remove the promise of Grace from our Christianity, and replace it with judgment.
Except it isn’t “our” Christianity. We haven’t “discovered” the Gospel to make it into a “new” and better religion. We haven’t “discovered” a Jesus who is kinder or more accepting or less judgmental than He ever was. And We don’t follow a Jesus who refuses to love those who are not perfect or forgive those who have “fallen short of the glory of God.” (Romans 3:23)
Our “discovery” of Jesus should be a lifelong discovery– a lifelong journey of becoming who He wants us to be; becoming more like who He really is. Part of that is living out our faith in a world that refuses to understand or accept the Gospel. Part of it is living our lives according to the Bible’s principles, and not our culture’s trends. Part of it is trusting that God’s word never changes, even when the world around it does. And part of it is a consistent pursuit and practice of humble and earnest prayer. Otherwise, we may well be guilty of the same conquest and colonization as those we are condemning who came before us.
He said to them, “It is written, my house will be called a house of prayer, but you are making it a den of thieves!”
Matthew 21:13 (Christian Standard Bible, via Biblehub.com)
It’s October. Time for apple cider, falling leaves, pumpkin spice cookies, bonfires, corn mazes, and “haunted houses.” I don’t know about other parts of the world, but in my neighborhood, we usually have dozens of local charities decorating barns or old factories or houses, and charging people to visit in the nights leading up to Halloween. They hang cobwebs and mirrors, create mazes and special effects– creaky doors, moving floors, glowing objects, eerie moans, flashing lights, and pop-up creatures , along with volunteers dressed up as ghosts or mummies or zombies to guide them along the way. Hundreds of people tromp and shudder, laugh and scream, as they travel through the house. They come back and bring their friends, eager to watch their reactions, and see if they can remember all the “surprises” to come.
I’m not a big fan of haunted houses. I don’t like being frightened for “fun.” And I don’t like giving money, time, and thought to making “fun” of death and evil spirits. This year, with COVID still a factor, many of the haunted houses are closed or operating very differently. So are many other venues, including churches.
Which brings me to a startling thought–have some of our churches become nothing more than a kind of haunted house? People come to be entertained; to feel their pulse beat faster, or get excited about a particularly good worship sequence. They may even come to be “frightened” a little by sermons about hell and death, sort of like watching a spooky movie or listening to ghost stories by the campfire. They meet up with their friends, and go out together afterwards to their favorite restaurant. The service is filled with special effects– lights and videos, booming bass lines and dynamic guitar solos, volunteers dressed up to greet visitors, serve coffee and donuts, collect money, and take attendance; sometimes even gimmicks, and props, and prizes.
I’m not saying it’s wrong for churches to be warm and welcoming; I don’t think they have to be gloomy and boring. But we’ve spent so much time making our churches “attractive;” put so much of our time and effort into making worship thrilling and fulfilling, that we’ve lost our focus. This isn’t “the people’s house.” It isn’t a “fun house.” It is God’s house. A house of prayer. A house of honor and reverence. A Holy place. We’ve made our churches places of basketball courts and coffee bars; playrooms and gift shops; social networks and small business incubators…
We read about Jesus chasing the moneychangers out of the Temple, but we erect huge signs in front of the church tracking our fundraising efforts for a new roof. We are not a “den of thieves.” But are we a “house of prayer?” Are we meeting together to pray, or to be entertained? To meet with God, or to meet up for fellowship? Are we creating a maze of mirrors and gimmicks, instead of calling out in urgency and humility to Almighty God? Are the pews, or chairs, or stadiums, filled with the (spiritually) walking dead?
Jesus created a stir when He rebuked the money changers. They hadn’t suddenly appeared and set up shop. They didn’t see themselves as “thieves.” After all, they weren’t stealing from anyone. They were buying and selling items connected with the Temple worship–animals for sacrifice, incense, food for hungry travelers… They weren’t stealing money– not exactly. Maybe they charged extra for their services; for the convenience. Maybe they had bribed someone or used their influence to get a prime marketing spot inside the Temple perimeter. But that’s just business. And, until Jesus kicked up a fuss, no one seemed to notice or mind.
Jesus wasn’t upset about money– He was upset about those who were stealing from the Father. Cheapening His glory, crowding in on His House, bringing the noise of everyday commerce into the court of contemplation. Bringing dust and pettiness into His Holy presence. Trading the Awe of His Majestic Temple for the “aw, shucks” of a day at the mall– or a trip to the Haunted House.
We have a real opportunity as “The Church” to take a close look at what we have become, and how we want to adjust to “life after the pandemic.” If Jesus were to visit our church, would He find it a House of Prayer, or a Haunted House?
21 “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. 22 Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name and in your name drive out demons and in your name perform many miracles?’ 23 Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’ Matthew 7:21-23 (NIV)
In my life I have met “important”people– people with money, or power, or fame, (or all three!) And I have met “forgotten” people, “ordinary” people, “special” people, flamboyant people, even repugnant people.
I know hundreds of people’s names; recognize their faces; carry memories of laughter created, or goals accomplished, or griefs shared. As I get older, I sometimes meet up with people I should remember or know, but I can’t place their name, or their face has changed out of recognition since we last met. And of course, the same thing sometimes happens in reverse– I expect to be recognized, but the other person has no memory of me. It can be distressing; this feeling of not remembering or not being acknowledged.
I know many families who have journeyed through Alzheimer’s or other forms of dementia. Loving someone who no longer remembers looking into your eyes, no longer reacts to the tone of your voice, no longer knows your intimate secrets…who searches your face and sees only a stranger. Hoping for even a glimmer of recognition; a moment of memory–it’s heart-breaking and harrowing and exhausting.
But imagine hearing those words from your creator– “I never knew you.” In all your life, never having made time to create memories with the God who formed you in the womb, who counts the very hairs of your head; hearing HIM say, “I never knew you. I made you; I was as close as your next breath through every moment of your life. I heard every laugh; I saw every tear– yet I never KNEW you. You never let me in; you never reached out or looked in my direction. You pretended to others that you knew me. You ‘name-dropped.’ You told others that we were friends. That you spoke with me every day. I heard you. I wept. But I never knew you. And you never knew me. Oh, you learned about me. You knew enough to convince some others that you knew me. You even said elaborate prayers and quoted many of my words. You put on a good show. But you lived your life as though you never met me; as though I were no more than a myth or a shadow. And now, now that you see me for who I AM; now that your eternal life depends on it–you have to hear the most frightening words I will ever speak: ‘I never knew you.'”
10 I want to know Christ—yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, 11 and so, somehow, attaining to the resurrection from the dead. 12 Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already arrived at my goal, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. Philippians 3:10-12
Of all the people I have met; of all the people I know– Lord Jesus, let me recognize Your voice above all. Let me cherish your presence in every moment of my life, and in every relationship. Grant me grace and wisdom to follow you and live in joyful obedience. And let me invite others into your presence. Let me know you and be known by you. Let me be eternally yours as you are mine.
When I was growing up, I knew three important things about my father: I knew he loved me–and the rest of our family–faithfully and truly. I knew he loved God–He was a man of faith, prayer, integrity, and obedience to the Word. I knew he would do anything to protect and provide for our family.
But I also knew that my Daddy wasn’t perfect. He was not the strongest man in the neighborhood; or the fastest, or richest, or most respected. He wasn’t the tallest, or most athletic. He wasn’t a leader in local politics or a chamber group or fraternal organization. He didn’t have a string of degrees, or a fleet of fancy cars. He didn’t even have a lot of hair, or perfect teeth. But he had a gentle laugh, a deep wisdom, and a hug that made me feel safe and precious. He had a enormous heart– one that was easily touched, but firmly committed. He was humble and kind; he was loyal and brave and joyful.
I was blessed to have such a Dad. I know people whose earthly fathers were distant, disapproving, absent, or even abusive. Earthly dads, even one like mine, are still human. They make mistakes and bad choices; they carry baggage from their own childhoods; they carry fears and failures; they fall short of our expectations, and their own hopes and dreams.
God is a different kind of Father. He is eternally sovereign; the King of Kings, and the Creator of the Universe. There is no comparing Him with anyone else’s father– because He is the Ruler and Father of all! Yet, He wants a close loving relationship with each one of us– with me! With you! He is not just committed to doing His best to provide and protect some of us– He is fully capable of providing ALL our needs and protecting us against ALL enemies, including sin and death!
Someone once used the analogy of President John F. Kennedy. As President, JFK was arguably the most powerful man in the world– the leader of the most powerful nation on earth. At his command, soldiers, sailors, pilots, and even nuclear missiles, could be deployed. The stroke of his pen could sign bills into law, grant pardons, and appoint powerful positions. To enter the Oval Office and have an audience with the President was an honor reserved for rulers and generals and authorities– and his children.
There is a picture of JFK, Jr. as a small boy, peeking out of the Resolute Desk, as his father sits behind the desk conducting the business of the nation. The son had complete access to his father’s presence– access to the most powerful man on earth–his Daddy. He may not have fully understood what his father was doing, or even how important his father was– but he knew that he could spend time with his Dad.
Of course, President Kennedy was not God. He was fallible, and terribly mortal, as the nation learned to its grief. But the idea that God is distant and uncaring, or even vindictive and petty, is belied by the many Psalms and hymns and prayers throughout the ages. And the idea that God is just another “pal”, or “the man upstairs”–someone who loves us, but has no real power to command our obedience or rescue us from our enemies–is also belied by the many miracles and examples of His power in nature and in history. And unlike the exclusive nature of the relationship between JFK and his biological children, God invites ANYONE who calls on Him through His Son to be adopted as a son/daughter with the same intimate privilege of total access. https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=John%201:11-13&version=HCSB (John 1:12)
So when I pray today, I’m not praying to my “Daddy” in any earthly sense. I am praying to the King of Kings, who also invites me to call him, “Abba”– “Dad.”
14But even if you should suffer for righteousness’ sake, you will be blessed. Have no fear of them, nor be troubled, 15 but in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect, 16 having a good conscience, so that, when you are slandered, those who revile your good behavior in Christ may be put to shame.
1 Peter 3:14-16 (ESV) via biblegateway.com
I was approached years ago by an angry non-believer, who asked me in disdainful tones how I could possibly believe in God, Jesus Christ, heaven and hell, and other Biblical tenets. At the time, I was taken aback by the vehemence and anger. I stammered an answer, heart-felt and, I hoped, theologically “correct”–I think I quoted scripture and gave a short version of my personal testimony. The other person was not impressed or convinced. I felt like I had failed. The other person sneered at my belief–and at God!
I spent weeks going over in my mind what else I might have said. I came up with clever arguments, gripping counter-questions, self-deprecating “homey” zingers, I read books on apologetics, and studied the words of great thinkers…I would be ready next time. I would not be left looking or sounding naive and unprepared. I would have the tools to “win” the argument, and God would be proud of me.
But in the years since, I have done more thinking (and reading, and praying!) And this past month, as I’ve been reading through the Old Testament prophets, I have found a new perspective. Prophets like Isaiah, Habakkuk, Amos, and Malachi spoke the very words of God to people around them. They spoke to ordinary people, and to the religious and political leaders of their day. And almost none of them listened! In fact, the prophets were hated, sneered at, smeared, imprisoned– some of them were even killed.
These prophets were prepared. They were not being ambushed with “gotcha” questions, because they were the ones presenting and challenging people with the truth. The truths they spoke were often harsh and offensive. They were truths about coming judgment and destruction, followed by restoration and revival. There was nothing “welcoming” or attractive about their message. But the people remained stubborn, sinful, and unimpressed.
We live in the post-Resurrection age. Our message contains warnings about judgment and destruction– but unlike the prophets of old, we have a message of immediate and eternal Hope and Salvation. We have centuries of prophecies that have been fulfilled; of testimonies to the power of a risen Christ and the Holy Spirit. Yet even Jesus warned us that “..in the world (you) will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33b ESV)
We often feel that if we cannot “win over” those who challenge us–if we cannot prove to their satisfaction that we are “right” in our beliefs–that we have failed. Yet we have so many examples of faithful witnesses who suffered and died without seeing the results of their faithfulness. God does not ask us to “win” every battle in convincing and decisive fashion. That’s HIS job! What He does ask is that we should be prepared to give an answer– and that we do it with gentleness and respect.
I don’t have to silence the critics. I don’t have to have “mic-drop” moments. I don’t have to “win” every debate. God calls me to be faithful, honest, and humble. My words may not change someone else’s mind. But my changed life and God-honoring attitude may plant a seed that someone else’s words and life, and the power of the Holy Spirit will cause to grow into faith– even if I never live to see it!
In answer to the question, “How can you believe?” The answer often lies, not only in what we say about our belief, but how we live it out!
I have to admit, this is not a reaction I enjoy. I want to meet with God in prayer, feeling loved, confident, and joyful. And I know that God is sovereign, awesome, and powerful…but I want to revel in the goodness of redemption and the hope of glory, not tremble in fear or awe.
Yet, we are told to do both throughout scripture. I can’t really have one without the other.
Today, I need to tremble– to see and acknowledge the awful wrath of God, fully and horrifically borne by Jesus on the cross. God did not send His Son to tidy up an uncomfortable or embarrassing “slip” on the part of one man. Jesus bore the weight of the Holocaust and the nightmares of genocide, abortion, plague, and famine throughout the ages. Jesus paid the price of slavery, and sex trafficking, and human sacrifice committed over centuries and millennia of hatred and abuse. Jesus faced the punishment justly deserved by billions of acts of rebellion and rejection by people He had lovingly created. And He did it so that you (and I) could be held guiltless and allowed to enter the courts of praise.
Someday, we will see Him face-to-face. Yes, it will be joyful, and glorious. But it will also be cause for trembling. To see perfection, righteousness, Holiness, and Love, and yet see the One who was “pierced for our transgressions, and crushed for our iniquities…”
There is little glory in momentary happiness or small victories. But when we stop and tremble at His Majesty, we arise with joy unspeakable, and true worship!
Now I lay me down to sleep; I pray the Lord my soul to keep. If I should die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take.
I learned this prayer as a child. It seemed very grim, and pessimistic. As a child, I spent very little time (as little as possible) thinking of my own mortality, or the state of my soul after a day of playing with dolls or running around outside. I was blessed with a safe and easy childhood. Of course, I had days of sickness, a bout of chicken pox, the loss of a pet, news of neighbors who had died in war, fallen to cancer, or been killed in accidents–moments that caused me to reflect a bit more. But I didn’t want to think about serious things. I wanted peace and happiness.
As a younger adult, I came to the conclusion that prayers like this were old-fashioned, and designed to scare vulnerable children into a false faith based on fear and gloom. Shouldn’t children learn about the Love of Jesus and the Mercy of the Father, instead of worrying about death and eternal doom of their soul? Prayers like this would be “bad” for young children; traumatic and disturbing. Better to teach them prayers that were sweet and light, and full of only the goodness of God.
Lately, however, I remember things a bit differently. Yes, there is gloom and doom in this old children’s prayer, but there is also comfort, Love, and Mercy. As a child, I could “lay me down” to sleep in peace, knowing that God would, indeed, keep my soul from harm. I didn’t expect to die, but when I woke up dreaming of monsters, or suddenly became aware of mortality, I didn’t have to stay fearful. God is bigger than any monster; bigger then Death. I could not trust anyone better, mightier, or more capable than the Lord to keep my soul, or to “take” it safely to its final destination. I learned about the Goodness of God, but I also learned about stark realities– the persecuted Church, war, famine, injustice–things that God wants me to confront, and endure, and lift to Him in prayer. And for every “gloomy” reality, there are stories of victory and joy, faith and resilience, love and grace– because God is standing by, ready to rescue and reassure and redeem.
I am old enough now that mortality plays a bigger role in my thoughts. I have lost a parent, my grandparents, aunts and uncles, classmates, co-workers, neighbors, and friends. I’ve experienced both great joy and great sorrow. But I need not be afraid of disease, dilemmas, or even death. I need not worry about the state of my soul. I may have griefs, aches and pains, and worries about tomorrow. But I can “lay me down” in peace and patience, knowing I have a Good, Good Father whose love has surrounded me for over half a century. I can “Hush” all my fears, and sleep like a baby, knowing my God is always standing right by my side.
I’ve been reading through the prophets (Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, etc.), and there are many references to altars and sacrifices–both the ones built to honor Jehovah God, and those designed for idols.
Israel and Judah were guilty of building thousands of altars and shrines to false gods. Some of them were found even inside the Holy area of God’s own temple! As part of God’s judgment, He repeated that He would no longer accept the empty sacrifices of His people–He would no longer hear their prayers, unless they repented.
I read these words and wondered– Where are our altars today? When I was a child, many of the older churches had what we called an Altar. It was usually a raised platform, with a podium for the minister, and possibly a “host table” for communion. My childhood church also had a small table that held a large Bible. Sometimes, the platform would have a railing around the edge, with a couple of stairs on either side. And, while many churches “passed the plate” for offerings, some had a special plate on the railing of the altar, where people would march up and place their offerings for the week. There it would sit for the rest of the service–random dollar bills of random denominations in random states of being crumpled, folded, and worn, along with checks, and, sometimes even coins. All of them brought forward and placed on the altar.
Today, many churches have stages, like any large theater or event center. There is no railing, but there are hundreds of spotlights and fog machines. There is no podium for the pastor–just a headset and maybe a small stand for notes. Sometimes, the pastor reads from a teleprompter. Often, he or she is joined by a full band or orchestra, and dozens of singers, actors, or other assistants. No one from the congregation approaches the stage– why would they get up from their comfortable reclining padded seat? No one even “needs” to bring a Bible– the sermon text is printed out on the giant screens hanging above the stage. Our worship is comfortable, and entertaining.
But we have no altars. There is no place for someone to lay their offering before God; no place to meet with Him in repentance or revival. There is no place to remind us of sacrifice and atonement. Oh, to be sure, many churches have a large cross on display somewhere. Some even have the “host table” for communion– somewhere in the wings, just in case–but the concept of an “altar” has all but disappeared from churches in the West. It is an anachronism–something ancient and uncomfortably part of the distant mists of tradition.
The world has a lot to say about hearts. We can be heartsick, heartbroken, half-hearted, all heart, hard-hearted, tender-hearted; we can lead with our heart or follow our heart, wear our heart on our sleeve, or have a change of heart. We can have a heart of gold, or a heart of stone. Our heart can be in the right place, or it can wander.
The Bible has a lot to say about our hearts as well. In Proverbs, we are told to guard our hearts above all else.
Our hearts are precious, but they are also fragile and fickle. Our hearts can be led astray, bruised, crushed, and hardened by sin– not just our own sin, but sins that are committed against us. And hardened hearts are not immune to damage– they don’t become stronger, just more rigid and brittle. We live in a world of damaged hearts. And damaged hearts are prone to damage other hearts.
God does not want us to lock up our hearts or wrap them in barbed wire, but He does want us to be watchful and active in protecting our hearts from the enemy. God created us with emotions, but not every emotion should be indulged or shared with others. We are told to rejoice with those who rejoice and mourn with those who mourn. But we are never told to encourage jealousy, anger, depression, envy, apathy, rage, boastfulness, or hatred. Letting these emotions control our actions can only lead to further pain, destruction, sorrow, and heartache.
We need to guard our hearts, not only from external threats, but from internal deception. We think we know our own hearts– we tend to trust them more than we trust God, or His Word, or the godly advice of friends or family. We act at the prompting of our emotions– sometimes in direct conflict with God’s Word and Wisdom, and to our shame and pain.
When we pray, God’s spirit can heal our heartache, and give us the strength of heart to reach out and heal others. But we must be careful not to attempt healing others in our own power and wisdom. Our heart may seem to be “in the right place,” but often, that’s how we got hurt in the first place!
Tender hearts, broken hearts, even hard hearts– God can heal them all and use them to heal others. That’s because God’s heart is perfect–and on Calvary, He poured it out to rescue you, redeem you, and restore you.